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Your grand designs aren’t necessarily amazing spaces

Whose ‘aspirations’ are we talking about when colleges try to justify the vast sums of money splurged on new, high-concept buildings?

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Whose ‘aspirations’ are we talking about when colleges try to justify the vast sums of money splurged on new, high-concept buildings?

Whenever I read about a college banging on about how much it’s spent doing up its buildings, I pause.

“We’ve spent £30 million on blah blah blah state-of-the-art, blah blah blah futureproof.” Here we go, another monument to misplaced notions of what defines aspiration. And these expensive structures are always about aspiration, aren’t they? But aspirational for whom? The students, the staff or the legacy hunters in the already-lovely offices?

Some of these upgrades may well be essential if the campus is dropping to bits, if the environment doesn’t provide the necessary teaching resources (lots of vocational areas require a specialist set-up to replicate the workplace). If a building’s condition renders it unfit for purpose, then of course colleges must get it sorted. But let’s remember what the purpose is. A college is a place where people learn. What does a place where people learn look like and, more importantly, what does it require?

Does it need designated “think spaces” and glass-box classrooms? I’ve never understood this ubiquitous trend of notionally roping off a place in which you can treat yourself to a good ol’ think. It’s crackers! Thinking is – and I’m sure this will be headline news to you, so brace yourself – portable. Honestly, you can do it anywhere. On a beach, on a bus…I’m doing it right now.

Four walls and a door

My requirements for a teaching and learning space are simple: I need four walls, a door, and if I’m going for five-star luxury, they can bung in a couple of windows for some natural light. None of those walls should be made of glass, no matter how much it’s supposed that such a feature creates the sense of a wider college community or a feeling of intellectual openness. Such pretensions only make sense in an episode of Grand Designs or when teaching the kind of Stepford Students I have never ever encountered.

Try teaching a glass box full of easily distracted 16-year-olds when a recently released hoard of fellow teens drifts past; I’m confident that my sessions are engaging, but I’m no match for that. It’s like watching a wildlife documentary on either mating rituals or territory establishment, depending on how near it is to lunchtime.

I might also like a few boards around the room to display students’ work, an act that never fails to raise aspirations by positively affecting self-esteem. And it’s cheap compared with the construction of touch-down/break-out/ learning-pod spaces full of iPads.

That’s not to say I don’t want iPads, or laptops. I do. I want access to up-to-date tech and a solid system to support it. The good news is that I don’t need a new-build to house such equipment. A cupboard will do me fine.

New builds or extensive upgrades should focus on one thing only: providing a place that supports young people, adult learners and staff to achieve the kind of lives they are reaching for. Let’s not confuse what design consultants think are spaces conducive to learning with what teachers know are such spaces.

Sarah Simons works in colleges and adult community education in the East Midlands, and is the director of UKFEchat. She tweets @MrsSarahSimons

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