Room for improvement

27th July 2007 at 01:00
More than a third of Scottish schools are in poor condition, but refurbishment and new designs reflect a fresh approach to learning. Miranda Fettes reports

schools are being rebuilt or refurbished in the name of educational reform and the amount of money being ploughed into Scotland's "school estate" is unprecedented.

Since 1997, more than pound;4 billion has been invested in school buildings. Forty public private partnership projects across the country account for the largest share, with a capital value of more than pound;2.8 billion. The Schools Fund, which provides annual grants to authorities for maintenance and refurbishment, stands at almost pound;146 million a five-fold increase in as many years. And local authorities spend a further pound;125 million a year on school buildings.

The PPP approach was a key strategy in the last (Labour) executive's commitment "to develop the largest ever school building programme in Scotland's history, renewing 200 more schools by 2006, rising to 300 by 2009". Projects cover everything from full-scale replacement to extensions.

Whether the PPP route will be replaced with the not-for-profit trust favoured by the SNP executive remains to be seen. But it adds up to a major move to replace antiquated buildings that are inadequate for the educational needs of pupils with state-of-the-art facilities. Over a third of Scotland's school buildings are in poor condition, according to figures released by the executive this month (only 14 per cent were good and 1 per cent new).

The Scottish Executive published guidance on school design for local authorities in March. "Modern, well-equipped buildings, together with strong leadership, can transform education, making schools inspiring and exciting places in which to learn and work. We want schools to be at the heart of communities, acting as a focus for the lives of pupils, parents and everyone who lives nearby," says a spokeswoman.

"New schools must meet the needs of their pupils and keep an eye to the future so that buildings can be developed to take account of technologies and teaching styles."

Her Majesty's Inspectors have noted the difference a building can make. In a report on St Bride's Primary, South Lanarkshire (2006), it states: "The school was bright and attractive and provided a very welcoming learning environment... All associated with the school commented on the very positive impact the new building had on morale and pupils' enthusiasm for school... Classrooms were spacious and well equipped and allowed pupils easy access to outside teaching areas to extend and enhance their learning."

Alex Donaldson, a director at 3DReid architects in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Falkirk, which has designed 57 schools since 2000, says the use of schools is evolving. "Historically, schools have been created around classroom-based teaching; however, this is likely to change," he says. "Changes in learning patterns and methods mean an increased need for different types of spaces and more flexible spaces.

"Increased community access to learning means that schools will have to cater for learners of all ages, capabilities and needs, therefore schools need to be designed to be accessible to a wider range of users."

Flexibility is key, he says: "Schools will become more vi-brant, less institutional, more accessible to all. There will be more variety of internal and external teaching spaces and an interconnection between formal teaching and social activities. Schools, in essence, will become more mall-esque."

Four key elements contribute towards creating a good learning environment, he says: flexibility in use; inspirational spaces; spaces that support learning; and spaces that actively involve pupils, teachers and the wider community.

ICT provision is also a huge factor. Other features include interactive spaces, dedicated community facilities, multi-purpose areas such as assembly or dining halls that double up as sports, music, drama and dance spaces, external play and garden areas, increased outdoor access and improved PE facilities.

The executive's guidance suggests south and west-facing classrooms should be minimised, and daylight, natural ventilation, acoustics and heating regulation be checked out in advance. Architects even take into account the prevailing wind direction and the site topography, considering things such as air pollution, noise, odours and natural shelter. Schools catering for children with special needs can also be designed to include features such as sensory and therapy spaces with specialist lighting.

Castlefield Primary in East Kilbride moved into a new pound;7m building at the end of February as part of South Lanarkshire's pound;850m project to renew 124 primary schools 12 are completed. The old building, constructed in 1972, was in very poor condition.

Andrea Reid, the headteacher, says the new building has had a positive impact on morale, a sense of health and the general atmosphere. "It's clean, bright, airy and it's a joy to work in," she says. "It's giving teachers the tools to do the job they've always wanted to do."

Classrooms are 70 square metres, compared with the 50-60sq m rooms of older buildings. Each classroom has a data projector, e-beam, interactive whiteboard, two computers and lots of storage, while lights automatically turn on and off as people walk in and leave. Each teacher has a laptop.

Instead of an ICT suite, the school opted for a movable trolley which goes from classroom to classroom with 18 laptops. Breakout areas enable active learning and the outdoor spaces are much more attractive and are consequently being used more. Overhangs mean children can play outside, irrespective of weather, and a Muga (multi-use games) pitch is proving popular. The site of the old building is going to be transformed into a fruit and vegetable patch.

Castlefield's gym doubles up as an assembly hall and theatre, with a stage, lighting and curtains for performances. A general purpose room and dining area are similarly designed for flexible use. An external door per two classes has brought an end to long queues, and a secure entrance, CCTV and buzzer system make safety paramount. P7 pupils Andrew Mungall, Erin Duffy and Kayleigh Westran say the new school is "much better". "We can get outside even when it's raining, it's good to be able to take laptops into class and there's a better library."

Facilities can be used by members of the community, which Mrs Reid says has cut down on vandalism "because it's theirs".

Portlethen Academy in Aber-deenshire opened in 1987. The original building was designed to accommodate 650 pupils, but the school roll has grown to more than 800, so the council commissioned a new school under the PPI2 scheme. In August last year, Portlethen moved into its new pound;45m building, designed with an emphasis on community facilities.

After a whole session in the new premises, Albert Swinborn, the headteacher, says it has given the school "tremendous advantages" in terms of better planned and equipped teaching areas and improved ICT provision. Pupils were keen to have social areas, natural light, teaching areas that were spacious, and good support facilities and good ICT provision. As a result, he says, they have shown greater respect for the school.

"We wanted state-of-the-art facilities that would meet pupils' needs but prove flexible as changes occur," Mr Swinborn says. "A great deal of thought went into trying to make the school energy-efficient."

Denholm Primary in the Borders has a new building scheduled to open in August 2008. The old building was destroyed by fire last year and all are in emporary ac-commodation. Jeanette Gordon, the head, sat on a Scottish Borders Council panel of heads to create a school of the future. "We were thinking ahead about the way education is moving," she says. "For example, it's imperative to have the cabling and power points for the amount of technical equipment we'll have. ICT and Glow (the national schools intranet) are going to have a big impact."

Teachers wanted larger classrooms with flexibility of arrangement "to facilitate the type of learning we want. We want to be able to do more interactive activities and structured play".

Parents wanted to preserve the old building's sense of progressing from the infant end up the corridor to the upper end. Ray Cherry designed the classrooms in a "learning curve", from the youngest to the oldest. Mr Cherry, who is the assistant architectural manager at Scottish Borders Council, developed the design in collaboration with the architectural liaison officer for Lothian and Borders Police. "If there is a positive physical environment, occupants are more likely to respect it, and this reduces vandalism and maintenance costs," he says.

Good design can also be capable of future adaptation or extension, he says, within the limitations of the given site. IT and power distribution routes need to be planned for ease of change without disrupting the whole fabric.

Flexibility should allow for variations in use, layout, number of occupants and teaching patterns and methods. "In doing this," he says, "the school is able to provide a range of spaces that will suit different styles of learning now and in the future."

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