The design of schools too often overlooks the basic aim of a space fit for learning, says Ian Smith
e are in the middle of the biggest school building programme ever. Billions are being spent but, in the rush to meet construction targets, are we really giving teachers schools of the future - or are we simply in danger of replicating those of the past?
I spent the past six years of my life as a classroom teacher working in a brand new school which was built around a magnificent swimming pool. The main classroom block was reduced in size halfway through because of a budget cut; the decision was taken to cut the size of the classrooms, not the number of them. In most of the classrooms with 30-plus pupils, there simply wasn't enough room for any kind of set-up other than desks in paired rows facing the front. Talking to teachers working in many new schools today, they seem to have similar problems - lots of money spent on public areas and open spaces, but classrooms that they consider to be too small.
As one teacher in a brand new secondary told me recently: "The classroom I teach in seems deliberately designed to ensure that a certain percentage of teenage boys are excluded from school."
It's not as if there isn't plenty of advice around for planners and architects about what is needed in a good classroom. I Googled "classroom design" and in seconds came up with a huge study from New Zealand's ministry of education (Best Practice in Classroom Design), which was based partly on research into what teachers and pupils themselves thought was most important. Top of all their lists was space - lots of it.
It could be argued, however, that more floor space in classrooms is a very expensive resource to provide and teachers might not use it. After all, the New Zealand report pointed out that classroom methodology is more greatly influenced by the teacher's personality and beliefs about what constitutes good teaching and learning than it is by the architecture and design of the room.
But surely we are at a time when we can leave old-fashioned polarised debates about classroom methodology behind. Most teachers, including those teaching in the so-called non-practical subjects in secondary school, now recognise that their job is not simply to present, instruct and demonstrate but about how to scaffold, coach and facilitate.
They recognise that in school, as in life, pupils need room to move and a chance to learn and talk with their peers and be able to comment on each other's work. But they are well aware that sometimes pupils, particularly challenging pupils, who face the front learn more because they are freed from distractions.
That is precisely why secondary as well as primary classrooms need space to provide flexibility, so that sometimes pupils can work individually or in pairs facing the front and sometimes in small groups facing each other. And it is why many believe that the "standard" secondary classrooms need to be a different size, shape and design to allow such flexibility.
The traditional British classroom was some 55-60 sq metres, rectangular and designed for the teacher to work from the front. What many argue for now is 75 sq metres as standard, arranged as a square and designed for the teacher to work from the middle. Some secondary teachers who have this kind of space already group their pupils in a horseshoe. The pupils can see each other, they are equidistant from the teacher and it's a good way to integrate assessment for learning techniques such as no hands up.
So why do many of the new secondary schools provide more floor space in open and public areas rather than in individual classrooms? Is it because designers and planners can't see the future?
Or is it because they see a different future from classroom teachers? Their thinking might be that less learning will take place in one-teacher, 30-pupil secondary units, and more will take place informally outside classrooms where pupils are trusted to use their school responsibly and to learn more independently at times away from a teacher.
Many schools are seeing these areas as an opportunity to address A Curriculum for Excellence. Others need a bit more help to break away from the idea that all learning must take place in classrooms with a teacher present, even when the open areas are designed cleverly to be close to classrooms and partly merge with them while avoiding the pitfalls of open-plan.
But moving outside the four walls of the classroom is a big step for both teachers and pupils. Several secondary schools have managed it very successfully. Others need help so that they and their pupils can make the best use of their new facilities.
After all (to quote the mantra) responsible citizens, effective contributors, confident individuals and successful learners don't need to be in a classroom with a teacher standing over them all the time.
Ian Smith is founder of Learning Unlimited.