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Room to grow

Could classroom design make all the difference to pupils' learning? Nicola Yeeles investigates

Posted by Hannah Oakman | April 17, 2015 | Facilities & buildings

No curved buildings. No glass. No alcoves. The government has recently imposed new regulations on school builds – leading many to question the value of employing architects to design space. In 2014, the Education Endowment Foundation reviewed the factors that affect pupil learning and decided that “changes to the physical environment of schools are unlikely to have a direct effect on learning beyond the extremes.” But is the cynicism about the impact of classroom design on pupils really justified?

Not long ago, a study by the University of Salford appeared to prove what an extraordinary effect the right space could have on pupil attainment. Funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the research shows that moving an average child from the least effectively designed classroom to an effectively designed one can increase the pupil’s performance by as much as 1.3 sub-levels of the national curriculum in a single year.

Persuasive research?
The study, which looked at 751 pupils, seemed to show that classroom design can affect academic progress by up to 25%. Researchers sampled pupils’ attainment at the beginning and end of the 2011/12 academic year, recording their performance in maths, reading and writing. They then analysed the classroom environment, taking into account factors like natural light, noise, temperature and air quality, as well as use of space, storage, organisation and colour.

The Salford research builds on years of similar studies, focused on individual factors affecting children’s learning. Research at Reading University on indoor air quality showed that concentration can be affected by carbon dioxide levels above 1500 parts per million; in a typical primary school the levels can be treble that. In 2007, Wargocki et al reported that 10–12-year-old children responded faster when they were doing number and language tests if the temperature was slightly reduced and the ventilation rates increased. In another study, intimate and personalised spaces were shown to be better for absorbing, memorising and recalling information. 

Goodbye to classrooms?
One primary academy that has been putting this research into practice is Wallscourt Farm Academy in South Gloucestershire, a Cabot Learning Federation school, which opened with two-form entry in September 2013. The new school had to serve an unusual vision – a simple building which allows for flexible teaching and learning and an enquiry-based curriculum, where adults guide learning, prompting questions which children may pursue elsewhere in the space.

Headteacher Susie Weaver explains the choice of architecture firm at the tendering stage: “The first team had built lots of schools and had plenty of experience. The second team said: ‘We’ve seen your vision for learning and we’re really excited.’ We went for the second team. People told me: the building will take over. But it never did. The conversations that we had were always about the learning.”

Weaver’s own office is now linked to reception by a slide, manned by the school dog. But that’s not the only unusual feature. Corridors serve as teaching space and the outside is welcomed in through conservatory rooms that buffer the central areas. When it comes to colour, the walls are surprisingly bare, allowing for anytime, anywhere projection. All the furniture is colour-coded for different age groups, and children know that shapes on the floor indicate areas for different activities, such as circles to sit on for registration. There’s no library, simply book trolleys; computers also appear on wheels.

Wallscourt Farm Academy have truly capitalised on the advantages of building from scratch, to create a modern, creative and ultra-flexible learning environment. But with most academies confined to the space they have, what can others possibly take from this new build? Richard Paige of NVB architects, who designed the academy, insists that the building was neither expensive nor particularly large, and furthermore would meet current regulations. He says that academies should consider not changing the space they have, but how they use it.

Paige comments: “Flexibility is important, and furniture is absolutely key. For example, choose bespoke chairs that are ergonomically designed. You can find chairs where if you relax, you rock forward, so it’s more difficult to slouch. It just takes a bit of thought at the first stage.”

Outside, he says, most of the work was about “moving earth around; it was about creating interest.” For example, the team created a shed where pupils can keep chickens. Paige concludes, “You can get a fantastic learning resource without throwing money at climbing frames.”

Rethinking the space
Nevertheless, most learning providers don’t have the luxury of a whole new school. Another academy that has been bringing good architectural practice to bear is Baxter College in Worcestershire, where an extension to the existing secondary school campus has brought three different learning providers on to the site.

Headteacher David Seddon explains that even though the college is in the seventh most deprived ward in England, the ‘baggage’ the children carry can provide opportunities for the school to have an impact, and that includes the physical buildings.

Seddon explains: “You put someone in a clinical space lacking in stimulation and they behave accordingly, and the same goes for a tight space. So we’ve been very conscious of space and how it fits. In the new science labs they've got breakout spaces, moveable doors so you can make bigger spaces or smaller spaces.”

When it comes to finding uses for rooms, multi-purpose has been key: “The special school has furniture that goes up and down to adjust the height. We've tried not to be exclusive but to find solutions that will work for everyone.”

Looking to the future
Of course, one of the challenges is in designing classrooms that won’t quickly become redundant. Instead, Seddon says, the project team have had to be creative. “We've tried to look at this thinking: 'what could it be?' Not just designing for now, but for the future.”

Susie Weaver agrees. “Already the environment the children go out into is significantly different from 20 or 30 years ago. We need to prepare our children to be flexible in their learning so that regardless of where they are, they can apply themselves in any context as they get older.”

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