FE must be inspirational in form and function

4th December 2015 at 00:00
As commercial organisations have long recognised, the relationship between workspace and motivation is key

As my footsteps echoed along the corridor of the brand new FE college, I couldn’t help but feel that colleagues at my former college would be envious of this “blank slate” for learning.

Part of an initiative to introduce technical and vocational training to Saudi Arabia, the new institution was the culmination of a partnership between leading minds from the UK FE sector and the Saudi establishment. However, as I wandered the still-sparkling hallways and classrooms filled with rows of pristine tables and chairs, my mind wasn’t filled with the wonders and possibilities of this new college. Instead, I was reminded of a crumbling 1950s monolith in rural England.

Five years prior to arriving in Saudi Arabia, I had taught in an FE College in the UK, a motley collection of decaying, 60-year-old buildings and temporary accommodation made permanent by the passing of the years. It was typical of many such establishments I had encountered during my career.

One morning, my team found ourselves poring over designs for a new college campus, including a climbing wall atrium, state-of-the art sports facilities and enough ICT to dazzle an Ofsted inspector into submission.

While the plans were full of student-friendly facilities, the fact remained that the college would still comprise a maze of drab, grey corridors, classrooms and dining rooms, football pitches and sports halls. In essence, it was a 60-year-old model given a facelift and polish and without any reflection of the modern working environment. The new design was entirely functional, uninspired and uninspiring.

That summer I visited the headquarters of George Lucas’ company Lucasfilm, nestled in San Francisco’s Presidio national park, a former military base in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge. The Letterman Digital and New Media Arts Center – the campus housing Lucas’ companies – retains the uniform aesthetic of its military origins while being surrounded by landscaped gardens, ponds and picturepostcard views.

Lucas wanted to inspire staff and visitors alike, building on his long-held belief that environment and creativity were linked and that everyone could draw inspiration from the environments and workspaces they inhabited.

Watch this space

The corporate world has long recognised the relationship between workspace and staff motivation. Google’s new London offices are particularly quirky, with a meeting area based on a “granny flat”, including chintzy lampshades and rocking chairs. The internet giant recognises the need for all staff, irrespective of their role, to find inspiration in their working environment.

At Nike’s Oregon headquarters, staff not only have access to gyms and running tracks but also a lake and walking trails. The sportswear company has embraced the idea that the work environment can communicate its ethos of health and fitness while also providing landscapes to inspire and motivate staff.

If, in architectural and design parlance, form follows function, we have to ask ourselves, what exactly is the function of FE? Are we in the business of inspiring, motivating and igniting the imagination of our learners, irrespective of their area of study? Or is the remit of FE simply to provide a trained, capable workforce, with the job of inspiring learners being teacher-led and limited to the creative industries?

Light the creative spark

At some point those plumbers, vehicle mechanics and bricklayers may go on to start businesses of their own, venturing into the world of marketing and publicity. Surely, then, we have a responsibility to light the creative spark in those learners, too?

Steph Cronin, graphic designer and owner of Barnsley-based Black Bee Creative, thinks so. “An inspiring environment is incredibly important to me as I have to develop fresh new ideas day after day, and it’s easy to burn out unless I keep feeding my imagination,” she says. “To inspire learners to use their imaginations and develop problem-solving abilities, irrespective of their field of study, is to develop transferable skills which are key in so many careers and in life in general.”

Of course, the counterargument will always be that funding hasn’t allowed FE to drag itself away from the 1950s model of vocational education, in which the function of retraining the post-war workforce took precedence.

If we continue to look 60 years into the past, we fail to accurately reflect the environments and demands of the modern workplace. Only by embracing industry thinking to develop creative environments where everyone can thrive will we truly be preparing learners for 2016 and beyond.

Russell Sheath is a former senior leader at an FE college in Saudi Arabia

Updating your institution

Look to industry. There are endless examples of industry taking a lead in realising the link between working environment and motivation, productivity and creativity. Could this transfer to your college? It doesn’t have to involve a major remodelling.

Don’t confuse bright, shiny things with ways to inspire learners. A climbing wall is great for a small number of people, but could that £100,000 be better spent on landscaping or providing a workspace for all learners?

Look to your own workspace: is it bland or personalised with pictures, trinkets and things that inspire you?

Let the learners do the talking. If you allow your students to take ownership of that run-down break room, you might be surprised by the results.

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