Pushing creative limits

23rd May 2008 at 01:00
A school's design can make a big difference to children's learning. Elizabeth Buie reports
A school's design can make a big difference to children's learning. Elizabeth Buie reports

The introduction of the new curriculum will drive changes in the way that schools are conceived and designed, the head of school estates for the Scottish Government has predicted.

The increasing use of more interactive learning styles will also mean that space in schools will have to be used differently, Eileen Gill told a conference for architects, designers and education experts.

Delegates at the Primary Space symposium, held at Dalry Primary in North Ayrshire to showcase its radical design, urged her to incorporate artists right at the start of the school design process and to employ them in her own department, at the top of the decision-making process. Ms Gill conceded that mistakes had been made early in the school building renewal programme and urged authorities to learn from each other's experiences.

But she also posed a series of questions: "Do we understand why pupils like certain places? What, to them, is a good learning place, and why? You can still get good attainment in a poor building, so what is it about this kind of building, that adds value?"

Dalry Primary is the only new school in Scotland to have been designed through the eyes of an artist so that pupils' learning is enhanced by the building around them.

The concept of "imbedded intelligence", developed by Bruce McLean, head of graduate painting at the Slade School of Fine Art, in London, is that pupils' learning and curiosity will be sparked by their physical environment.

The new design has pushed creativity so much to the fore, said Maureen Denninberg, the head of Dalry Primary, that she has been forced to rethink the school's staffing requirements. Teachers' new awareness of the impact of the expressive arts has persuaded staff of the need to employ a full-time specialist art teacher, she told the symposium.

The downside of employing such a teacher was that it would detract from the school's staffing complement, and he or she would not be able to cover for a sick colleague. "But I feel strongly we need the artist's ideas and artistic personality to keep us on our toes," she said.

Each of the school's semi-open plan square classrooms is created on a theme - including number, language, geography, science or colour - all aimed at stimulating the senses and prompting pupils to want to learn more. The environmental science room, for instance, shows how the electrical and piping infrastructure works behind clear plastic casings; the computer room is enveloped in undulating grey silky material, making it look like its nickname, "the brain".

Mrs Denninberg said she had fought hard for some features to be implemented, when faced with potential funding cuts. She insisted the raised seating in the sports hall remain and that pupils have proper trays, dishes and cutlery in the dining hall. "In the 21st century, asking children to sit on a hard floor during an assembly is criminal; as is asking them to use prison-type trays and slop out their food. I think the children are learning respect for the building because we are giving them one in which they are respected," she said.

Ben Twist, representing the Scottish Arts Council, which helped sponsor the design project, said that working with artists made "different neurons fire" and made people think differently. Scotland must put creativity at the heart of its developments, or it would lose out to other cities, regions and countries which were able to attract the best artists and industries, he warned.

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