Step into my office

12th September 2014 at 01:00
Quirky knick-knacks, messy desks, orderly bookcases - these things can speak volumes about the person who occupies the headteacher's study. Interior designer Diana Yakeley goes through the keyhole to see what five rooms reveal. Photographs by Julian Anderson and Paul Floyd Blake

A headteacher's office is the scene of many significant and sometimes sensitive moments: from the joy of exam success to painful news of bereavement, failure, reprimand and, on some occasions, dismissal. The interactions that take place in this room can change lives for ever.

So, the opportunity to examine a number of headteachers' offices is intriguing to an interior designer. I am trained to analyse space and then deliver firmness, commodity and, hopefully, delight (to paraphrase the famous maxim of Roman architect Vitruvius, which guides every architecture student). In the design of working environments, the goal is to create rooms that are appropriate for the people who inhabit them and for the purpose of the building.

I have been asked to use my skills to analyse the offices of a group of education leaders - two in primary schools, two at secondaries and one in further education - who bravely volunteered to be photographed in their studies. My job is to explain what these offices "say" to those who enter.

A great deal can be deduced from the visual clues that these rooms offer. Much can be understood from the choice of personal possessions, the books, the artwork and the general feeling of organisation - or the lack of it.

On the evidence of the offices seen on the following pages, it appears that headteachers are not given the workplaces that executive staff in other professions might expect. Good design is lacking in most of these studies. Of course, people are what make schools successful, not buildings. But with simple changes, these spaces could better reflect the passionate and inspiring leaders who work in them. The officials who procure premises for educational establishments should try harder.

But, back to the task at hand: what can visitors glean from these five offices?

Diana Yakeley is design director at Yakeley Associates, an architectural practice in London ( She has twice been president of the British Institute of Interior Design ( and is a fellow of the Chartered Society of Designers

Dame Joan McVittie

Headteacher of Woodside High School in North London

This is a truly uninspiring office, with a depressing mineral fibre-tiled ceiling, standard blue colour scheme and flat light. The dead hand of public-sector architecture looms over the space. The desk is badly positioned: the reflection from the windows will make the screen difficult to see on bright days. In fact, this room is a design disaster.

The only visual highlight is an incongruous but humorous flying pig, which hovers over the desk of a headteacher who has been appointed Dame of the British Empire.

With her bright but formal jacket and pearls, she clearly means business, determinedly continuing to work while the photographer zooms in on personal mementos: a beautiful hand-printed fabric, a small but delightfully crafted vase and lively family photographs, all of which could be packed up in an instant should the need arise. A ceremonial trowel carefully fixed to the wall suggests the opening of a new school building, often a sign of change.

This is not the office of a person who relies on superficial artefacts to impress parents. Instead, it suggests a dedicated personality who drives change by sheer determination and understanding of pupils. Government ministers would take notice of this woman who is presumably a serious role model for female pupils. This is a headteacher who can make children fly, if not pigs; her office shows that excellence is possible despite, not because of, the surroundings.

Joan McVittie was appointed Dame in 2012 after turning around schools in two deprived areas of London. She joined Woodside High School in 2006 when it was at risk of closure; it is now rated outstanding by Ofsted

Anthony Bravo

Principal of Basingstoke College of Technology in Hampshire

This large office suggests a further education establishment - the substantial, well-polished conference table is intended for sizeable staff meetings. There is a healthy fruit bowl (no carbohydrates here) and pictures of students performing in the creative arts decorate the walls.

The dcor is bland - beige carpet and cream walls - but the apparent personality of the headteacher makes up for that. This man is physically imposing, carefully dressed and clearly supremely self-confident. A poster of Muhammad Ali indicates that the boxer is a role model - or perhaps the inspirational quote is intended to remind students to "live your life as a champion".

A framed photograph of a rally car implies a lover of sports who likes physical as well as mental challenges. A Chinese scroll hints at international visits and a pinboard displays organisational diagrams and charts, alongside a Post-it note listing "passion, respect, performance" - qualities I assume this man hopes to impart to his staff and students.

The overall impression is of a strong personality who can drive through change and relate to his students. The IT department should be asked to organise the ganglion of wiring under the desk, though.

Anthony Bravo was appointed principal of Basingstoke College of Technology in 2009. It provides vocational training in subjects from beauty therapy to civil engineering

Hans van Mourik Broekman

Principal of Liverpool College

This room represents the height of Victorian Gothic school-building - a time when a number of the UK's well-known public schools were established, often with ecclesiastical principles.

High ceilings, picture rails and pleasing proportions, combined with oriental rugs, traditional overstuffed sofas and gilt-framed portraits of stern benefactors and previous headteachers, all speak of traditional values and altruistic ideals. With the Pugin wallpaper and subdued paintwork, the general impression is of a period drawing room.

Family photographs, brightly coloured cards, the headmaster's dashing striped socks and the Italian-designed desk light are the few concessions to modernity. The desk light in particular is telling, perhaps chosen by the room's present incumbent to offset the heavy Victoriana.

I suspect that a face-to-face meeting with this man would dispel the feeling of frustration that arises from all the trappings of the past. He appears approachable, likeable and caring, and not particularly comfortable in this museum-like space; he has an incongruous blue Smurf to remind him to smile. The desk is positioned awkwardly in a corner, suggesting someone who prefers to meet in a more relaxed setting: around a table with a cup of coffee, not at a computer.

As a prospective parent, I would need to be reassured that this school's curriculum embraced the 21st century as well as traditional academic rigour. From a present-day child's viewpoint, this room would appear unfamiliar and somewhat daunting.

Perhaps it is time to find a new home for the brown oak furniture and alleviate the heaviness with some well-designed modern pieces. The pioneering and inventive Victorian benefactors would have done so.

Hans van Mourik Broekman became principal of Liverpool College in 2008. Founded in 1840, it is one of a handful of independent schools to convert to state-funded academy status. It is now an all-through academy for pupils aged 4-19

Carolyn Tommey

Headteacher of Rode Methodist VC First School and Norton St Philip CofE First School (pictured), both in Somerset

A bright yellow door with a shiny red handle opens into a small, cheerful office, clearly part of a modern junior school that is not in an inner-city area. The month must be July because the room is full of presents from grateful parents: fudge, flowers and scented handwash have a central position in the limited space on the desk.

This person has a good eye for design, as evidenced by the choice of prints and carefully aligned frames on the wall. Bright colours and graphic shapes are chosen to please children, without resorting to overly childish tastes.

The overall impression is of an efficient and inspirational leader with a leaning towards Scandinavian design, primary colours and endearing, well-designed soft toys. This office is too small to spend much time in and visitors might suspect that this headteacher would rather be teaching small children than trapped at her desk. I would give her 10 out of 10 for creating a delightful haven in such a limited space.

Carolyn Tommey has been headteacher of Norton St Philip CofE First School, a small village school for children aged 4-9, since March. She is also headteacher of Rode Methodist VC First School, a position she has held since 2001

Karine George

Headteacher of Westfields Junior School in Yateley, Hampshire

Another regulation-blue room with a mineral fibre-tiled ceiling, exposed pipework, vertical blinds and standard-issue Bisley filing cabinets. There must be a handbook of dismal design for public-sector schools.

This is a large, airy office and it must be a sizeable junior school, judging by the rows of colour-coordinated files, all immaculately labelled in serried ranks on tidy shelves, guarded by soft animal toys. There is definitely an animal theme going on here; small children often relate to animals better than to adults, so they surely love this room.

Camels, foxes, bears and frogs cling to the heating pipes. Telling the time is a cuckoo clock (which I rather hope does not cuckoo every 15 minutes) and a picture of a large, thoughtful chimp takes pride of place on the pinboard. Even some of the drawing pins have ducks on them. I imagine the animals coming to life at night and doing the filing.

The size of the office allows for meetings around a conference table, and a wall-hung plasma screen, not seen in the other studies, suggests an interest in technology.

Two comfy red chairs are provided for parent meetings; red accents seem to be a theme, too. Beneath the desk, startling red stilettos can be seen on the headteacher's feet, although sensible flats are nearby should the need arise. This woman has the confident air of an experienced and forward-looking professional.

A capacious briefcase hints at the work taken home at the end of the day, suggesting a headteacher wedded to her job. As a parent, I would feel sure that my child would be well cared for at this school, although I might look disapprovingly at the bottle of Diet Coke.

All is ordered, organised and efficient. The strong character of the woman in charge shines through the commonplace.

Karine George has been headteacher of Westfields Junior School, for children aged 7-11, since 1996

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