It has been the source of some debate - but the design of a primary school classroom can significantly affect how much pupils learn, according to new research.
The colour of the walls, the amount of natural light and the degree to which classrooms are personalised can all affect pupils' progress and test results.
Academics from the University of Salford examined how much pupils' environment could affect their performance, looking at whether certain types of classrooms could even encourage more rapid learning. Their findings have been published in the latest edition of the Building and Environment journal.
Researchers examined the academic achievement of 751 pupils, studying in 34 classrooms across seven schools. They began with the assumption that effective brain function depends on three design principles: how natural the environment is, how much it has been personalised and the level of stimulation available.
"These relate, respectively, to our basic animal demands, the needs of pupils in particular and the implications of the school-learning situation," the report concludes.
The academics observed the set-up of each classroom - recording factors such as layout, colour, artificial and natural light and wall displays on a detailed drawing. They also took measurements of light, noise, temperature and carbon dioxide levels to determine the quality of the environment. In addition, room and window size was recorded.
Finally, they interviewed the teachers who worked in each classroom, asking for their comments on temperature, noise, smell and glare. They gauged potential variations in the quality of the environment over one year. At the same time they examined each pupil's level in reading, writing and mathematics, as recorded by teacher assessment and standard tests.
The observations revealed that 73 per cent of the variation in pupils' performance could be explained by environmental factors. In fact, the difference between the academic performance of an average pupil placed in the worst classroom, compared with that of a pupil placed in the best classroom, was equal to the average improvement of a child during an entire academic year.
In particular, six out of the 10 environmental factors measured significantly affected pupils' progression. Five of these factors had a positive effect on pupils' learning.
Classrooms that received natural light from more than one direction, and with high-quality electric lighting, benefited pupils. Similarly, pupils did well when the wall and floor colours had been carefully considered. For example, warm colours helped to encourage younger pupils' extroverted nature.
Design features that allowed pupils to feel a sense of ownership towards their classroom also helped them to learn. Similarly, comfortable - and larger - desks and chairs were an aid to progress. Pupils also benefited from a range of activity zones within a single classroom, allowing different types of learning to take place at the same time.
The bigger the classroom - and school itself - the more opportunities there were for such varied types of learning. Diversity helped to stimulate pupils.
Yet, perhaps surprisingly, the academics found that wide, well-decorated corridors in a school building appeared to have a negative effect on pupils' ability to learn. The more of these corridors there were in a school, the less likely its pupils were to do well in tests. The academics admitted to being baffled by this: "It is clear this factor is important ... but the mechanism is not fully understood at present," they report.
Some measurements varied minimally between classrooms. For example, the air quality was universally poor across all classrooms. Equally, other factors were found to have such a detrimental effect on learning - for instance, noise and temperature levels - that they rendered all other factors insignificant.
The conclusion was that while stimulation was important so was a sense of order. "Young children may like exciting spaces, but to learn it would seem they need relatively ordered spaces, with a reasonable degree of interest," the researchers conclude.
ENVIRONMENTAL FACTORS THAT IMPROVE LEARNING
Daylight entering the room from more than one direction.
Bright and high-quality lighting.
Blinds are better than curtains.
The space near the window is free of clutter or furniture.
Carefully considered colours for the wall and floor areas.
Warm colours may complement young pupils' extroverted nature.
Cool colours enhance older pupils' ability to concentrate on learning.
Carefully considered colours for furniture and displays, taking into account the children's age.
Any design features that allow for a sense of classroom ownership by pupils.
The bigger the classroom, the more opportunities it offers for varied learning patterns and activities.
The bigger the school, the more opportunities there are for alternative rooms or spaces in which pupils can learn.
A larger classroom helps pupils to learn.
Being able to change the configuration of the classroom means teaching methods can be more easily adapted to improve pupils' learning.
A range of different zones in the classroom allows for different learning activities to take place at the same time.
Barrett, P.S., Zhang, Y., Moffat, J. and Kobbacy, K. "A Holistic, Multi-level Analysis, Identifying the Impact of Classroom Design on Pupils' Learning", Building and Environment, 59 (2013), 678-689.
Building and Environment.
School of the Built Environment, University of Salford.