Classrooms Matter

Research undertaken by the Royal Institute of British Architects in 2014 ‘found that 80% of schools are operating beyond their life cycle’ – suggesting that the majority of our schools and classrooms are unable to provide effective learning environments as they are simply past their best. Lack of space, poor layouts and declining durability are among the biggest issues, and surprisingly these challenges are often found in new builds. RIBA’s research found that schools being built now are 15% smaller than those built under the former BSF programme that was abandoned in 2010. This is a real issue as overcrowding in narrow corridors can lead to an increase in bullying and harassment of learners. Professionals within the education sector have been trying to tell the government about the positive and negative effects of institutional design for years, with little effect. Instead, the government put focus on standardised and modular designs seeking lower construction costs and an improvement in efficiency. These mass production aspirations meant contractors led the way rather than architects.

Schools should be more than just functional spaces, they should inspire. Architects can help by providing stimulating and effective learning environments for future generations. If we want engaged, happy and confident learners, we need to ensure they are learning in classrooms that are built to good specifications and offer the flexibility to deliver the full range of the school curriculum. Flexibility around area targets could bring focus on improving the quality of the space. However, the government’s solution to the challenges of a shortage of school places and crumbling school estates is based on cost rather than long term value. Without architect involvement, school environments will be left to those with little appreciation for the positive effect good design can have.

There is huge potential for schools to have inspiring classrooms that enhance learning, teaching and wellbeing. In fact, the HEAD (Holistic Evidence and Design) study carried out by the University of Salford found that moving the average learner from the least effective to the most effective classroom could increase attainment by 1.3 sub-levels, which is not bad when you think a child should progress by 2.0 sublevels each year.

A well-proportioned classroom that has the appropriate storage, with just the right amount of display, is flooded with natural light, no glare, good air quality, a comfortable temperature, sufficient space to accommodate a range of activities for the right number of pupils (to name just a few…) will improve educational outcomes. The physical characteristics of a classroom impacted learning progress by up to 16% – this study builds on the conclusions of previous surveys (i.e. The 2010 Schools Environments Survey) which showed environments have a positive impact on pupil behaviour and well-being in addition to the teacher’s ability to teach effectively.

Many factors contribute to raising educational attainment in schools, with great teaching being the most critical. Yet the evidence also shows that good learning environments play their part, enabling staff and students to give their best. More than quantity, it is the quality of space that will support future generations of learners.

To find out more about the HEAD Study, and download the Clever Classrooms Report click HERE.

Carys Fisher

Carys Fisher is an architect and the Learning+ Lead for IBI Group’s Cardiff Studio.  She has worked closely with IBI TH!NK and the University of Salford to develop design guidance on improving existing classrooms whilst maximising the pupils potential. Carys was also part of a working group formed by Constructing Excellence in Wales and 21st Century Schools Wales, which was instrumental in the development of a Post Occupancy Evaluation process entitled ‘Brighter Spaces, Engaging Schools’. She has a keen interest in discovering new places and different cultures. Carys grew up in Australia and has lived in Cardiff for almost 20 years.

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