Why the design of school buildings matters

Badly designed school buildings can cause students to turn off from learning and even damage mental health

Diarmaid Lawlor

Why the design of school buildings matters

Equity and excellence drive education in Scotland. They influence how we choose to close the attainment gap, design the curriculum and empower teachers. They underpin how we try to get it right, for all young people.

The foundation of learning is wellbeing. Healthy social and emotional development in childhood and adolescence has been shown to be positively associated with better educational outcomes. The quality of our environments directly affects the experience of wellbeing.

Often we find young people have negative experiences of spaces in school, with a common complaint being that there aren’t enough social spaces in which to gather and build relationships. The results can be disengagement, disaffection or a sense of not feeling safe, affecting mental health, behaviour and attitudes – as well as learning.

To achieve excellence and equity in young people’s experiences across the learning estate, we need to make more of the spaces we already have, and design new environments to better respond to changing wellbeing needs.

Schools and local authorities regularly assess the suitability of spaces for learning using guidance set out in the Scottish government’s Core Fact on the suitability of the school estate. We call for collective leadership between learners, educationalists and local authority asset teams to drive improvements in social spaces to better support wellbeing using evidence from the Core Fact assessments. “Design for wellbeing” should be a key element of all school improvement plans across the country, at all stages of learning, supported by an evidence-based approach to impact.

Giving pupils the spaces they need

To achieve this, we suggest a series of measures. First, more participation by young people in the decision-making around changing and managing spaces in schools – we need to listen to what it is they want, and respond appropriately.

We also need more spaces within schools and learning spaces allocated to learner needs. This will involve creative thinking, and challenges to old patterns of use, to create new multi-purpose spaces, more social spaces, more and different learning settings and more places where young people can feel relaxed to be themselves. In addition, diversifying the range of spaces within schools will help to better manage transitions between learning stages, enabling learners to make decisions with confidence, adapt spaces to their needs, and find retreat and support spaces as they need.

As part of this we should be rethinking our use of the outdoors, recognising its role as a space for wellbeing and learning and enabling more learner-led opportunities in these settings.

All of this requires a radical change in our thinking and our approach, but ensuring that consideration and understanding of design and space is a key element of teacher and practitioner training and career-long professional learning will help to cement the long-term approach we need.

Young people who took part in design workshops run by Architecture and Design Scotland told us:

“(We need) a building that allows independence and choice.”

“(We need) a good place to go and talk to your friends.” 

“Social space is important for our mental health.”

We owe it to them to listen.

Diarmaid Lawlor is director of Place with Architecture & Design Scotland. This article is one of the ‘calls’ in Children in Scotland’s 25thanniversary campaign #25Calls

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Diarmaid Lawlor

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