Why spaced-out students may do better in exams

11th September 2015 at 01:00
New buildings have a ‘dramatic impact’ on student wellbeing

Modern school buildings that give pupils more space to socialise and play sport are having a “dramatic impact” on behaviour and even exam results, research has found. But the classrooms themselves are having less of an effect, because they tend not to have changed in design from those constructed decades ago.

The study by academics at the University of the West of Scotland is part of a long-running project that started in 2006. It explored the views and behaviour of East Dunbartonshire pupils while the local authority was overseeing a £100 million project to replace seven secondary schools.

The study tracked students in S1, S3 and S5 as they moved from their old schools into six new campuses, asking them about motivation, academic self-esteem, behaviour and their school surroundings.

Pupils were much more positive about their new environments, which motivated them in both classroom and extracurricular activities. They were also less likely to skip classes or get into trouble, and more likely to help classmates with their studies and get involved in volunteering.

“The improved perceptions of the school environment made a significant difference to pupils’ feelings about school, in turn leading to a healthier approach to learning,” said Eddie Edgerton, the environmental psychologist who led the study.

He added: “It appears that the improvement in the social spaces, circulation spaces and sports facilities made the biggest impact, contributing towards higher engagement with school and academic self-esteem. Perhaps surprisingly, the new classrooms seem to be less important – possibly because the layout of these spaces remains largely the same.”

Building in job satisfaction

The teachers surveyed also had higher levels of job satisfaction. They felt more in control of their environment and more positive coming to work. According to Dr Edgerton, this “can only be good for their pupils”.

A similar analysis in 2010 was less conclusive because it was unclear whether the novelty factor of the new buildings would fade over time. “In fact, what we’ve found is a sustained improvement in perceptions and behaviour to this day, suggesting that the school building itself is a major factor in encouraging positive behaviour among pupils – and potentially improving exam results,” Dr Edgerton said.

His team is now analysing whether moving into new schools has improved pupils’ performance in national qualifications, with the final results to be published by the end of 2015.

Glasgow primary teacher Anne Hutchison agreed that thoughtful design of school buildings could have a big impact on how pupils learned.

Having visited a number of new-builds, she was struck by how different they were from schools constructed as recently as the 1990s, boasting huge windows, high ceilings, better storage and a feeling of airiness.

Ms Hutchison, the Scottish Education Awards 2015’s teacher of the year, suggested that new schools tended to give more space to sport and physical activity because designs were reflecting the changed priorities of a national curriculum that now put health and wellbeing at the centre of schooling.

But she said that many advantages of better design could be replicated in older schools if staff thought “out of the box”.

She herself encourages her pupils at Carmyle Primary School to reap the cognitive benefits of exercise by walking or running for an hour each day. They also benefit from spacious surroundings by spending more of their time outdoors on other activities. “You can do maths outside, you can do science outside – you can still do the whole curriculum outside,” she said.

Remake and refurb

Meanwhile, the benefits of modernised school buildings have been extolled in new guidance from Architecture and Design Scotland. Remade Learning Spaces: why refurbish? aims to help local authorities improve their school estate by refurbishing old buildings.

The guidance notes that behaviour and attainment has improved at schools such as North Lanarkshire’s Coltness High in Wishaw thanks to the demolition of sections of the 1960s building. A colourful redesign has also helped, with its emphasis on creating social spaces such as “buddy booths” built into walls for small groups of pupils.

The publication is intended to complement the Scottish government’s £1.8 billion Scotland’s Schools for the Future programme. The government says that a fifth of the country’s school estate has been refurbished or rebuilt since 2007.

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