Schools fitted for heroes

29th November 2002 at 00:00
Good design can have a positive effect on teaching but, says Hilary Cottam, schools have yet to learn this lesson.

If someone asked you to think of really inspiring places, schools probably wouldn't top the list. But they should and could. Give teachers and pupils environments that allow for fulfilling and rewarding classroom experiences and you have a great basis not just for happier people, but for hard, measurable gains such as better exam results. Design really can make that big a difference.

Currently, though, most schools are not inspiring places. Walk into many classrooms and you will see serried ranks of identical desks and chairs that echo the Victorian notion of schools as factories - and a preparation for working in them. Worse, the design and quality of furniture frequently works against what teachers are trying to achieve.

It is agreed that a model of education based solely on teachers dispensing knowledge and pupils slavishly writing everything down is outmoded. And yet that is exactly what the design of most learning environments and resources still encourages.

Badly designed and uncomfortable chairs lead to noise and disruption, reduced teaching time and broken concentration. Inflexible furniture and old-fashioned exercise books limit the range of teaching and learning styles possible in the classroom. Inadequate storage systems waste time and resources by making it hard to find learning materials. Factors such as these contribute to lowering the value pupils think we place on learning, so dragging down morale.

So far, so familiar to many. So how can design help? Research increasingly shows that well-designed working environments have a measurable impact on motivation and achievement. Environments determine behaviour and can support or hinder effective and creative management. Business is increasingly receptive to this kind of thinking. For example, the design of Swindon-based Cellular Operations' new call centre building overcame a regional skills shortage by making the company a highly attractive employer. Productivity and morale increased, while absenteeism and staff turnover went down.

Schools can also benefit from focusing on design. Kingsdale school in Dulwich, south London, was taken off special measures partly as a result of School Works, a project which involved pupils and teachers in an investigation of the links between its built environment, educational programme, culture and management systems. Design can make the difference between environments teachers and pupils have to fit themselves into and spaces that are developed and shaped to meet their needs.

Britain is very good at design, and businesses which use it get results - Design Council research shows that 91 per cent of rapidly growing companies use design, compared to 49 per cent of companies overall. Yet, although many of our designers have international reputations for creating inspiring and effective working environments, products, systems and processes, you won't find many of them involved in education.

Why? It is not for want of money - every year we spend an estimated pound;1 billion on furniture and learning resources. It is just that the money is mostly not being spent in an effective way - and change is hard for teachers or schools to bring about in isolation.

Working with 12 partner schools across Britain on our Kit for Purpose project, the Design Council has come across countless examples of the problems I have outlined, from chairs that were broken within six weeks of purchase to donated supermarket shelves that could not hold the library books they were meant to display. With the help of designers, teachers, policymakers and manufacturers, we have also begun to map a different way forward.

It is based on linking the purchase of equipment to learning strategies and development plans, so that schools buy what they need, not just replacements for what has been damaged. This could well mean looking further than products featured in catalogues issued by many LEAs, and considering ones designed with the needs of a 21st century curriculum in mind. Affordable as many catalogue items seem, their real cost is often higher, either because they need replacing quickly through poor quality or because they do not fit in with what teachers want to achieve.

To allow an emphasis on long-term value over short-term expediency in buying decisions could mean taking steps such as aggregating departmental budgets to get beyond piecemeal buying. Also, in-service training days offer a good chance to focus on resources as well as best practice in other schools and businesses.

Throughout the research leading to our Kit for Purpose report we came across examples of the ingenuity of individual teachers in changing pupils'

learning experience. At one school, the simple device of taking digital photos of food technology work led to a whole new focus on, and enthusiasm for, issues such as presentation and marketability. At another, a "science amnesty" for hoarded equipment led to teachers beginning to prototype a new communal storage system, while one primary school teacher's solution to a temporary voice problem was to use a PA system to speak to pupils. The result was rapt attention throughout the lesson.

If you want to be part of the ongoing Kit for Purpose work, we would like to hear from you. The report is available at www.designcouncil.org.uk.

Hilary Cottam is director of learning and public services at the Design Council

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