Poor buildings encourage bad behaviour

2nd May 2008 at 01:00
The places we live in affect how we feel about ourselves, and many judge others on the basis of the spaces they inhabit
The places we live in affect how we feel about ourselves, and many judge others on the basis of the spaces they inhabit. School buildings could, therefore, put children in a negative frame of mind about their education and teachers. The recent report by Audit Scotland reminds us of the dire state of hundreds of our school buildings.

It is astonishing that while the mantra of education, education, education continues to be enunciated by politicians, we can still drive past school buildings that would fetch very little on the open market. It should be a cause for national concern that the rather negative view held of education and teachers in some communities might just be associated with dilapidated school buildings, rather than antipathy towards authority or learning.

We are afflicted by architectural schizophrenia; we recognise the importance of the building that is our home, but not the home of education. Private schools play up their buildings in marketing themselves. One only has to glance at a school to tell immediately if it is state or private.

It is conceivable that the international performance of our schools would rise dramatically if all felt they were going into appropriate quality buildings. Of course, it is not merely the building but also the spaces within them, where children and adults live together daily, that are hugely important for many reasons.

Eric Sundstrom, in his 1986 book Work Places, recounts how the psychology created by the physical environment affects all aspects of the individual. So if pupils feel their workplace is poor, that may motivate them to adopt a negative, anti-school identity. This could then lead them to treat their school building as a place where they can act in antisocial ways, since the message it gives them is lack of respect for how they feel they should be treated.

Teachers' recruitment can also be affected. They might feel their own value or self-esteem is being denied if their potential workplace is in a poor state.

Buildings are status markers and unfortunately they convey a low status upon education and the professionals who work in them. Recently, I visited Ibrox stadium in Glasgow, and found that disaffected pupils who played regular truant in their schools not only behaved in these plush surroundings, but never failed to turn up for the classes held there.

We risk conditioning generations of pupils coming through the school gates daily to believe that what they do there is not valued because where they do it is in poor shape.

Psychologists know that human beings construct realities in their own heads, making value judgments and complex evaluations. It is time for those responsible for the quality of the school estate in this country to ponder the implications for how hard pupils work and, ultimately, for national economic wellbeing.

The physical landscape of school buildings is a shockingly honest comment about the valuing of most of this nation's children by successive governments. This evidence suggests they are not committed to creating a level playing field for all our children. It is amazing that this issue has been "under the radar" for decades.

Christopher Holligan is senior lecturer in education at the University of the West of Scotland.

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