Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Who's a clever box?

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New ideas in building design coupled with significant capital investment in schools and colleges mean that finally there is a real opportunity to break away from the Victorian construct of students as passive learners in a traditional classroom. However, argues Edward Gildea, many teachers and staff aren't yet ready to grasp the nettle of new ways of teaching.

The trouble with Building Schools for the Future is just that: the future. 'Future thinkers' have dreamed up ideas of how things might be different and are encouraging local authorities and architects to design schools to fit that vision. What most of us would like, however, is to stick with what we know but have it in a much nicer environment; a more comfortable comfort zone.

Of course, teaching as a rule does not have a comfort zone. Sometimes nothing we as teachers do has much effect in switching challenging students back on to their education. So surely the rule is, when something doesn't work - fix it. Building Schools for the Future (BSF) is about fixing it through 'transformational education'.

This is the process of transforming the delivery and impact of education, largely through the potential of BSF, ICT, and workforce reform. It contains various strands, of which the central one is probably personalisation.

The implications for this on school design, both the buildings and ICT network, are immense. It takes us away from classroom boxes of much the same size, with the teacher standing at one end backed by a whiteboard.

Technology has made the whiteboard more interactive and exciting but in essence we have the same set-up as the Victorian era: children of similar age arranged in groups of about 30, with the curriculum set out by the teacher following nationally prescribed programmes of study.

A personalised learning environment (see right) puts children progressively in the driving seat. They begin to choose when, where, what and how to learn. Teachers are more like facilitators, because the emphasis is on learning rather than teaching. With this come more flexible, open learning areas, that can be adapted as needed.

A case of déjà vu?

Some teachers may experience déjà vu here. I started teaching in the late 70s when 'open plan' classrooms were in vogue and they were a nightmare. They did not create flexible learning, cross-curricular initiatives or tear down any barriers except the walls themselves. Acoustics were terrible; they became battlegrounds for teachers trying to make themselves heard.

So why will open, flexible learning areas be better this time? For two reasons. First, we have technology that we didn't have then, so pupils have far more scope to engage in their own learning without a teacher talking from the front. Second, the more successful examples of open, flexible learning areas are predicated on changes in pedagogy: they are led by educational not architectural vision.

In contemplating new buildings and learning spaces, some authorities are looking for designs that will make a clear break with the past. Others seek evolution rather than revolution: preserving a high proportion of conventional classroom space which can evolve into more radical and flexible spaces as teachers' techniques and pedagogy develop.

The challenge is to convince those staff - who in their hearts want a nicer version of what they already have - that this is possible.

Teachers have to put their views in early, long before the architects arrive on the scene. Ty Goddard, director of British Council for School Environments, says: "If we want to transform education, the involvement of teachers and learners in the design and build process is the right place to start."

BSF has had some poor press with claims that teacher were not being properly consulted. However, a recent report by PricewaterhouseCoopers found that this is changing.

Schools and local authorities start the BSF process by preparing their 'strategy for change' in which their vision is drawn up. This should be where any conflicting expectations are sorted out because once these have been submitted in the 'outline business case' and approved by Partnership for Schools, the outcome specifications and design quality indicators are set.

Dilemma of consultation

So the journey starts three years before the bulldozers arrive. But even here we face the dilemma of consultation. Should headteachers and directors of education with a strong and passionate vision of the future consult without being diverted from their vision? Or should they adopt a democratic approach, involving parents, pupils and the community in
the design?

Neither method guarantees success. I have seen one school where many of the opportunities of BSF were missed by strong but misguided leadership; another where a charismatic head worked on the basis that true innovations rarely come from asking customers what they want.

He quoted Henry Ford on the design of his Model T: "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses." His school turned out to be a stunning, innovative example of what can be achieved.

Consultation is only the first phase of effective change management. I was at a school recently where the winning design was being presented, but the teachers looked more glum than excited by the ideas. The science department had already marked walls on the plans in red biro to divide the new flexible area back into closed labs.

The state of the art ideas for new styles of teaching and learning were not proving popular. The problem was classic: teachers wanted what they already had, but nicer. They hadn't been developing their ideas for a new pedagogy to exploit the potential of the new building.

Unfortunately the budget for 'change management' in BSF is a percentage of the ICT component, as if change management is simply a question of training staff on how to use new computers and systems.

A percentage of the construction costs should be dedicated to training staff in the potential of transformational education, establishing change champions and spreading excitement about this radical shift in the balance between teaching and learning.

At its simplest, in deciding on their underpinning curriculum, schools have to choose between two ends of the personalisation spectrum: either the teacher led or learner led (see table below).

Teacher Led Learner Led
  • Instructional

  • Learners as consumers of media

  • Teacher authenticated

  • Content directed

  • Distinct from informal

  • Pace of the class

  • Single course

  • Predominant learning style

  • Approach directed

  • Restricted age range

  • Personalised by teacher

  • Knowledge creation

  • Learners as producers of media

  • Communities of learning

  • Peer and Self Assessment

  • Review cycle directed

  • Formal, informal continuum

  • Individualised challenges

  • Multiple pathway

  • Choice of approach

  • Peer and multi age working

  • Personalised by choice


The learner route means a lot of letting go by teachers. This is tough when our control feels so tenuous, but it can be done progressively. BSF buildings should be designed to be flexible. Schools are frequently being replaced by strong structures with loads carried on well-spaced pillars and under-floor heating so that walls can be moved around, added or demolished cheaply and easily. This not only gives us adaptability for 10, 20 and 50 years hence, it means that classrooms can be progressively more open, flexible spaces as teachers' confidence in the new pedagogy develops.

So what might be the most important principles for the design?

Professional environments:

We should raise the self-esteem of pupils, teachers and visitors by presenting them with professional standard facilities, from the reception desk to the recording studio.

This means that the learning resource centre is as suitable a place for staff to work as pupils, that the dining and café facilities are great places to socialise and that all toilets are sufficiently pleasant, comfortable and hygienic for everyone.

What better way to ensure that toilets are not ghettoes of gang culture and anti-social behaviour than if teachers and other adults share them?

Fit for purpose:

Every learning space should be suited to the educational function of each lesson. No more group recordings under the stairs or piling up tables to accommodate role-play.

There is some wonderful, innovative furniture design out there and professional standard ICT will equip young people with advanced creative skills. Different learning spaces will be designed to accommodate everything from project-based learning and independent enquiry to broadly scoped enterprise ventures and conferences.

Sophisticated premises management systems will enable room booking to happen on a daily or weekly basis, so the venue suits the planned activity rather than the activity having to fit the same venue, fixed for the whole year. Oh yes, this will encounter resistance from teachers who want the security of their own room, year in, year out...

Community engagement:

BSF is the opportunity to really make the most of extended schools so that they become focal point to support both community cohesion and local economic regeneration.

Government, quite reasonably, wants to see some impact on public health, literacy, educational, employment and quality of life targets in return for its investments.

Equally, children might be assisted on their journey to adulthood by learning in an environment which adults and local businesses use and respect.

BSF may also offer the opportunity to build an effective multi-agency centre which serves local families as well as children and provides joined up action in coping with the challenging backgrounds of our most disruptive pupils.

Of course it's early days for results. Just 35 out of the planned 3,500 BSF schools have opened so far.

However, it is worth heeding the conclusion drawn in the second annual report into BSF by PricewaterhouseCoopers: "There is a clear message that the buildings alone will not raise attainment unless accompanied by other changes to how the school operates."

Edward Gildea, a former headteacher, is an education consultant on BSF projects for Cambridge Education.


Phoenix from the flames

Smaller, friendlier study centres help meet demand, says Jeff Milner.

Eccles College Centre, Salford City College is a sixth-form college in Salford, built in the early 1970s. Until we added the new two-storey extension, it very much resembled the single-storey primary schools that sprung up in that era.

In 1993, a fire destroyed a quarter of the original building, including the library. In rebuilding, we decided to create a learning resource centre with computers on a mezzanine floor and the downstairs as a study area.

However, it's not large enough now to cope with the demand now for study space and computers.

Our solution, which we have applied in the existing building and the new extension, has been to create study spaces in each department - effectively slimmed down versions of the main learning resource centre.

One reason we chose this path is that it's cheaper than dedicating one or two rooms to ICT and filling them with banks of computers but it still enables us to meet the demand from students for computer access - which is huge, especially at coursework time - and we now have a ratio of 2.5 students to every PC.

We chose PCs rather than laptops again because it made financial sense. RM offered us a good deal and that's what it sometimes comes down to when you have limited funds. They are PCs with the monitor built into the processor so very compact and don't take up much space. Depending on the size of the study area, there can be up to 16 machines.

Most importantly, however, each study area houses all the subject resources a student needs in one place - a and that includes staff. Each area is designed so that the technology, paper materials, classrooms and staff offices are close together. In maths, for example, the study area is a lobby space which everyone has to go through to get to classes so it's easy to grab staff as they go through to get help with their work as they are doing it, rather than waiting for a lesson. Those informal contacts are often better than the formal ones.

We introduced the idea first to science in the old building and they seemed to like it, so we have gradually introduced it to the rest. In the new building, the spaces were designed in whereas in the old it has meant knocking down walls and so on, so it's a bit more difficult, and some of the spaces are a bit poky still.

But it was still worth doing because, without dedicated study spaces, students sometimes had a long trek to the central learning resource area and if they get stuck they have to trek back to their departments to track down staff.

I've seen learning resource areas in other colleges which are very big with banks of computers. That's useful in the sense that someone can book them out for specific periods but it's not a set-up that I feel nurtures effective working; it's almost like a factory. Smaller, looser, friendly study areas are more conducive to learning.

Jeff Milner is a maths teacher and former director of estates at Eccles College Centre.


Improving the climate for learning

Case study: Valley School, Nottinghamshire

Brian Rossiter says that everything at the new Valley School, from corridors to classroom doors, has been designed to improve the climate for learning.

I have spent the last year in our new school. In creating our vision for it, we focused on design elements that would improve both the quality of and climate for learning and teaching. Both are key to raising standards of attainment.

We had aspirations to link many classrooms with removable walls between them. But the reality of most PFI/BSF projects is that the money is not there to deliver highly flexible design solutions, so we had to compromise.

The Learning Centre (LC) is a dominant feature in our new school. It is designed around the front corner of the building and is on two floors. From the outside it is visible to the community as part of a landmark building in the town.

Inside the design is flexible enough to create spaces that can be used in different ways. The lower level of the LC is paper and digital-media based. Shelving in the centre is on wheels and can be moved around. A listening post (for CD/DVD talking books) and a comfy seating area support fiction reading.

The upper level of the LC is a highly flexible space with seating and workspaces that can be arranged for conferences, meetings, individual and class work, plus computers, interactive whiteboard and other services. This space can be supervised from the lower floor and can be used for sessions without taking the lower deck out of action for other groups. We are really pleased with this part of the design as the limitations on the use of the space are simply those of our minds.

The corridors at Valley School are a classic example of how we believe our design impacts positively on the climate for learning. We have seen poorly executed PFI designs where narrow corridors have created massive difficulties.

Our design requires wide corridors for the 1,650 students and staff to circulate and for behaviour management issues associated with narrow pathways to be ruled out. No corridor is less than 3.3m wide and we have fire doors within the (straight) corridors that are held back to give us clear sight lines, allowing us to supervise half of each floor from a single point.

Behaviour management has been further helped by having glass panels next to every classroom door. When I walk along the corridor I sometimes see students misbehaving when a teacher's back is turned. A simple knowing glance at the student or a gesture through the panel often resolves the problem without having to disturb the lesson. Teachers in turn feel supported by colleagues without their authority being undermined.

There are many other areas in our design where we feel very positive about the outcomes. We brought all our inclusion services together with a glazed corridor separating, but not isolating, some of our most vulnerable students in our learning support centre from the normal bustle on the corridors. The primary care trust facilities and inter-agency office form part of this joint services arrangement.

A large atrium, with 20 sofas to complement hard seating, now offers a warm and dry space for break and lunchtime socialising. And we have provided a massive, fully equipped staffroom with free fruit, tea and coffee to emphasise that all staff have a right to some down-time during the working day. Does our design meet our requirements? Overwhelmingly yes. The building is not everything; it is what you do within it that makes the difference. But the design certainly helps.

Brian Rossiter is head of Valley School, Nottinghamshire.


Drop-in learning centre

Case study: Ballyclare High School, County Antrim

Abandoning the traditional classroom configuration for ICT has lifted barriers to learning for students, staff and the community, says David Knox.

Ballyclare High School is a mixed grammar school in County Antrim, Northern Ireland, and a specialist school for ICT.

We have invested heavily in infrastructure, resources and staff development to enrich the learning experience of staff and pupils and to raise standards. A prime example is our drop-in learning centre.

Previously, the school's approach to ICT involved a combination of clusters of work stations, mainly in departments, and several network rooms. The new centre is a different proposition. It provides 60 work stations and is run on an online booking system that allows teachers to book seats for whole classes or senior pupils to book individual seats for themselves. Pupils also have open access to the learning centre before and after school and community groups can use the facility in the evenings when classes are offered to various community groups as part of the specialist school project.

A further discrete area of 30 work stations adjoins the learning centre, separated by a glass panel. There is also a video-conferencing area within the learning centre to which classes may be taken for that purpose or for short sessions of more formal instruction.

Computers are positioned in a serpentine shape allowing different groups of pupils to be taught together, so it is not unusual to see sixth form classes learning alongside year 8, interspersed with other pupils or teachers working individually.

An attractive, spacious area, the centre is flexible and conducive to learning. The school set out to achieve a learning space that was different and in which a variety of pedagogies would work effectively. Outside voices are heard in the classroom through the video-conferencing facility, while juniors, seniors and teachers can learn side by side.

The centre has helped to blur the boundaries that so often constrain us: the school day, the school classroom, the timetable. We use the centre for our 'blitz days' (off-timetable days for years 8 and 9) and project learning days. We have small group staff training sessions before or after school. Each day from 8am the learning centre fills up quickly and there is that purposeful, positive buzz that accompanies real engagement.

It is difficult to teach a traditional instructional lesson in this modern environment and for some staff the shift in the role of the teacher has not come all that easily.

We have also to be aware of the quiet child in this situation for s/he may more easily escape from view and miss out on the learning opportunities.

Teachers need to be much better prepared than in the traditional classroom in order to maximise the opportunities, because there are so many resources in one place: colour printing, print photocopying, video conferencing, camcorders, virtual learning environments, and more software packages that one could ever have imagined a few years ago.

The challenge for the leadership is to ensure that our training and development is up to the job. We have put a lot of effort into this aspect of our planning and a National Training Award reassures us that the delivery was good.

I have seen all kinds of lessons in the new centre and we're very glad we didn't settle for the traditional classroom configuration. We much prefer it that our pupils, teachers and the community can now 'drop in to learn'.

David Knox is head of Ballyclare High School in County Antrim.

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