Room with a hue

2nd February 2001 at 00:00
Is a fresh coat of paint all that's needed to make a haven out of a hell-hole, or does your staffroom need a thorough makeover? With the launch of a pound;40 million scheme to transform non-teaching space, Harvey McGavin explores the options

Funny places, staffrooms. Not quite canteens and too informal to be offices, they can resemble a hopeless attempt to combine the social atmosphere of a pub with the peace and quiet of a spiritual retreat. And they can double as a venue for meetings, a restroom for pupils, or a teaching area. But with so many people putting so many demands on them, small wonder that staffrooms - like their inhabitants - sometimes look a bit tired and jaded. Now the Government has recognised that the nation's common rooms can't continue with their tatty ways and has put aside money specially for schools to spruce them up.

Most staffrooms could do with a lick of paint. But slapping on any old colour could have disastrous consequences for staff morale, according to Angela Wright, author of The Beginners Guide to Colour Psychology.

Her consultancy business, Colour Affects, has advised a wide range of clients, from prisons to major corporations but, surprisingly perhaps, has never been approached by a school or education authority. She says staff should first consider the ambience they are after and then choose a colour. "You need to think about what sort of mood you want to create in your staffroom. Do you see it as a sort of sanctuary where you can get your energy back?" Sanctuary or slum, teachers can kiss goodbye to dreary colour schemes, coffee-stained tables, vinyl furniture, overflowing pigeonholes and sorry-looking pot plants. The Government has released a pound;40 million slice of the School Standards Fund to improve the state of the staffroom "or other areas used exclusively by teaching and non-teaching staff".

Money from the Working Environment Fund is being issued by local education authorities in flat rate allocations of between pound;500 and pound;2,000, depending on the school's size, with the rest given to those most in need. "This fund ensures that teachers have professional working conditions in which to prepare, study and relax when not in their classroom," the Government says. The new money followed discussions begun two years ago between Lord Puttnam, chair of the General Teaching Council, and ministers over proposals for a competition to design the perfect staffroom for the 21st century. But the plans were quietly shelved following the announcement of the fund - and after designers including Sir Terence Conran and John Sorrell, chair of the Design Council, were enlisted as advisers.

The only restriction is that the money cannot be spent on capital works. But there's nothing to stop you buying a dishwasher, microwave or mugs - or even yellow emulsion for those dingy staffroom walls. Angela Wright learned at first hand the effects of colour when she worked in the hotel industry. "We knew it had a profound effect on people. Too much yellow in the bedrooms and people couldn't sleep. Too much red in the bar and we would have a fight on our hands." Not so much Fawlty Towers as faulty design.

Thanks to a well-connected parent who worked on the programme, St Martha's, an independent girls school in Barnet, north London, got the professional treatment courtesy of BBC TV's Real Rooms. Suitably gloomy and severe-looking, the annexe to the staffroom in the Grade II-listed Georgian building had been used for detentions - and little else. Uncovering a hidden fireplace and building window seats, the team renovated it with uncharacteristic restraint - and surprising results.

Connie Burke, head of the 300-pupil school, says the makeover has had a "unifying effect" on her 28 staff. "It looked like a Victorian schoolroom - and had been painted very dark brown since it had been used for a TV play 10 years ago. Now, instead of sitting at heir individual places when they have their lunch, staff can sit together around a table. "They all say how tranquil it is. The school is set in a beautiful wooded area and the room overlooks a pond. The environment now comes into the school. Some staff say they have difficulty tearing themselves away to teach."

Few schools may be blessed with such natural resources. But John Wilson, professor of occupational ergonomics at the University of Nottingham, says making the most of our working environment can bring out the best in us. Every aspect of our surroundings sends out subtle psychological messages. "Our working environment affects our mood and performance in three ways. Style of decoration is vital. Harsh lighting or colours make for a hostile environment.

"Then there are purely practical aspects. If the staffroom is in a bad way, that will affect our performance - having the computers the wrong height, or uncomfortable chairs, will have a harmful effect.

"And if you give people difficult conditions to work in, it lets them know what you think about them. That can translate into their attitudes to work."

Teachers spend large amounts of time in child-centred spaces - classrooms - and then retreat to a communal space shared with other adults - the staffroom - without ever having a room to call their own. Like hot-desking - the business practice of having interchangeable workstations - this lack of personal territory can be psychologically damaging. Professor Wilson suggests the perfect staffroom would be practically as well as aesthetically pleasing, with a layout that lends itself to communication as well as contemplation. "In an ideal world they would be places where people could come together and interact, but if someone wants to so something quietly on their own, they can. But that in itself can cause problems if you get the same people who bag the quiet space every time."

Pay, promotion or working relations will always figure ahead of the state of wallpaper. But an unattractive environment can undermine all other positive developments, he says. "They are never going to go 'Wow, look at that lovely coloured wall'. It's not the same as having a brilliant new boss or a new job with extra responsibilities. Work conditions rarely have that 'wow' factor but if they are really poor it can stop other things happening. They will never really make people very happy, but if you don't get them right they will be very unhappy."

If you want your slice of the Working Environment Fund, apply to the Standards Fund co-ordinator of your authority before the end of December. You can also get help with cheering up your non-teaching environment from the Dfee's architects and building department. Tel: 020 7273 6741


Research has shown that disturbed children perform better in rooms painted particular shades of blue and orange, says Angela Wright. But before you opt for tangerine and turquoise in an attempt to ease your troubled mind, there are calmer combinations that can work just as well. "As a general rule, put some green in there. It combines the mentally calming element of blue with the mentally stimulating element of yellow. Or you could do it blue and yellow. Blue is the colour of the intellect, and different blues can calm the mind or stimulate it. So it is perfect in any learning situation, as long as it is not too cold and draining."

But, believe it or not, boring, local authority-issue brown or magnolia is not too bad for our mental health. "They are essentially neutral," says Angela Wright. "Brown is a serious colour that can work in certain situations where you are trying to encourage serious mood.

"Never put blue and brown together, though, because they will combine to become very depressing. And you shouldn't put too much red in a school. A little bit is good but too much can cause aggression."

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