Classroom environments should provide inspiration for the teaching within. Sean Coughlan reports on a new breed of school.
"Where would you like to learn? That's the real question," says Gill Marshall-Andrews, who is leading one of the Classroom of the Future projects under development in a dozen LEAs, funded by pound;10m of government money. While schools have experienced a constant pace of change, school buildings have often remained unaltered, with the same, box-shaped classrooms being used for generations. Only five years ago, the education secretary pledged modernisation for 600 schools that still had outdoor toilets.
But rectangular classroom boxes are being challenged in the London Borough of Richmond's contribution to the Classroom of the Future scheme. Three schools are to receive classrooms with curved walls and a futuristic pod-like shape, in a project led by Gill Marshall-Andrews with Future Systems, the architects who built the "spaceship" media centre at Lord's cricket ground.
The rounded shape was chosen by pupils and staffJand the design, with moulded, glass fibre walls, is so radical that it's being made by boat builders rather than a conventional construction company.
"Ordinary classrooms can make pupils feel ordinary. Children deserve the best we can produce. They shouldn't be stuck in uncomfortable, inflexible buildings," she says.
Flexibility is an important aspect of this experimental classroom. It's intended that teachers will be able to adapt them easily from a conventional seating arrangement to having a clear space, or dividing the room into separate working areas.
Technology is built into the design, with interactive screens on the wall, and plans for a wireless network to support whatever computer devices pupils are using.
"The technology in the classrooms will be as diverse as we can make it," she says, anticipating that ICT will help pupils to learn independently and to display their work.
There will also be plenty of natural daylight and a conscious attempt to make classrooms feel like attractive places to spend time. "Behaviour and motivation are connected to how pupils feel about their school," says Gill. "When children are used to attractive surroundings in their homes, why should it be different at school?"
The three standalone classroom units will be set up in a primary, secondary and special needs school. And the design is intended to be replicable, so that more classrooms can be produced from the original mould.
Announced at last year's BETT Show, the project will road-test designs that might be applied elsewhere.
For instance, in Norfolk they are developing classrooms that can support learning in small rural schools. While in inner-city Camden, the project will seek to make the most of available space in schools on sites where there is little scope for expansion.
This experimenting reflects a growing awareness that schools must not be left in a design time-warp. And there have been some eye-catching, newly constructed schools which have reinvented how a school should be expected to look. A London primary school made it on to the shortlist for the 2002 Stirling Award from the Royal Institute of British Architects, awarded for the building which has made the greatest contribution to British architecture in the past year.
Hampden Gurney Church of England primary school in Westminster was praised by judges for its "bold and dynamic" design.
This six-storey building, described as a "vertical school", was commended for creating a "safe and spacious" environment in an overcrowded inner-city location.
Another combination of new technology and a strong visual impression is the Business Academy, Bexley, the first of the new breed of city academies. Opened last term, this school has brought a distinctive face to education in the less-than-scenic Thamesmead area of south-east London.
Large amounts of public and private money have been put into this project, but the end result is a school building that wouldn't disgrace a corporate headquarters.
The inside of the building owes as much to an office as a conventional school. Classrooms are filled with flat-screen Apple Macs and teachers stand at interactive whiteboards. And the classroom spaces are intended to be flexible enough to be used in different ways.
This first phase of the classrooms of the future project will only directly affect a small number of schools. But it is intended to send a message of innovation, encouraging schools to think more creatively about classrooms as the most literal form of learning blocks.
You can use the internet to find updates of how classrooms of the future projects are developing around the country.
* For example, the University of Sheffield's School of Architecture has an online gallery showing pictures of how four school projects will look when completed. And it shows how different materials and shapes can provide very different concepts of how a classroom should appear.
You can reach the School of Architecture from the university's main website.
* For a more theoretical approach, an examination of how design can influence learning is presented in the classrooms of the future section of the Southampton council website. This asks how classrooms might appear if teachers had complete freedom to shape their environment and technology.
* If you want to see how children have drawn their own impressions of future learning, you can see drawings on the classroom of the future section of the website of the London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. The authority has one of the pilot projects at St Francis of Assisi primary school, where the new classroom will have a high-powered telescope and access via video-conferencing to a much larger telescope in Hawaii.
* If you want to discuss how classrooms might evolve, there is a discussion forum available through the National Grid for Learning's website. This includes a link to an account how the Department for Education and Skills is working "Towards the Classroom of the Future: Ideas in Action".
* An overview of the classroom of the future scheme is available on the Teachernet website, at www.teachernet.gov.uk.