Why School Building Programmes Miss the Point

The procedural, box ticking exercise that underpins our school building programmes means that today, when we face so many issues in education, we are losing a huge opportunity to design spaces that really work for children.

Architects need only accommodate specified parameters within a schedule of accommodation (as designated within the Building Bulletins in England) for classrooms to meet the required standard.

The parameters do nothing, however, to address the large volume of research that now gives us a clear understanding of how children react physically, psychologically and emotionally to the world around them, especially through their first critical years of primary education. If this research was used in any way, shape, or form, schools would take on a much more radical look, and be better teaching environments.

This position is often challenged with statements that illustrate the gulf of misunderstanding in this area. Designing child friendly spaces does not mean making a school a glorified playground, nor Disney-fying it. It means creating spaces that are based on a child’s cognition and their immature understanding of the world, as well as their physical limitations (and here we mean more than their smaller size). The result of this push back is that schools, and particularly classrooms, have remained virtually unchanged since Victorian times, save for the introduction of smartboards instead of blackboards.

This is not about the onward momentum of technology either. That, too, misses the point about how children develop, irrespective of any indications that today’s child is somehow transformed by technology. This is about understanding that children are not just small adults in relation to their environment, but completely different animals.

Let’s start with the basics. Before children start school, they have had only four scant years to grow their perception of the world from a base understanding of absolute zero. For some of those years they can neither explore the world on their own, as they have limited or no motor skills that allow them to do so, nor interrogate it verbally or query its complexity, as they have little or no language with which to ask involved questions or understand the answers.  It is amazing that they come on so quickly in those first four years considering the challenges that beset them.

What is means therefore is that when a child enters Reception at aged four; they have only a superficial feel for the world, based on very basic sensory concepts and broad intellectual evidence. Basically, they have no real ability to define the spaces they inhabit. This has been defined by some academics as living ‘a fantasy existence’.

Physically they are hampered too, which only adds to this restricted intellectual view of the world. Everything is growing, and not just their stature. Infant ENT systems are still immature so amongst other problems they do not hear as adults hear. Size is obviously a factor but so too are motor skills. Dexterity is still improving and will not reach maturity for several years.

Unfortunately, none of this is considered in the general scheme of things. It could be if we radically change the way we approach school design. What if, instead of defining a design through the purely mechanical parameters presently stipulated, we created spaces that allowed children to more easily improve their knowledge of the world around them? What benefits would that create?

Studies now acknowledge that self-mastery of their environment is critical if children are to develop better self-esteem, social skills and empathy. It is self-evident that on a purely intellectual level, increasing a child’s knowledge in, and interaction with, the world by using the classroom as the third teacher can only be a good thing.

Using advanced interior design that includes knowledge of colour’s power to alter our physiological and emotional states will make school interiors more vibrant. Institutional colour schemes should be a thing of the past. And colourful interiors help control behaviour. The proper use of correct lighting, and enhancements to acoustics that are more attuned to childhood hearing capabilities, help pupils to become more focussed and attentive and so improve their attainment. Of benefit to staff, such children not only learn faster but with better classroom behaviour stress levels, and other teacher health issues such as throat and voice problems diminish. Teaching becomes a more positive experience again.

One argument posited by those that wish to retain the status quo is that this all costs more. It doesn’t. High quality design does not lead to inflated costs. Indeed, over the long term high quality design will save money.  It takes no more to build-in better lighting and acoustics. A great deal can be achieved through year on year maintenance. If a light fails, replace it with the correct colour balanced light. Time to repaint the school? Do so using a proper colour scheme; not just magnolia and white that helps no-one. Every change becomes a positive assistance to all the school community. The benefits go on and on.

Of course, all this is easy talk for someone who has been involved in specialised educational interior design for decades. A building project is a stressful time especially for an already overworked teaching profession who do not necessarily possess the requisite skill set to champion a way forward that differs from what they are being offered.

Such a radical way of looking at school design does occur but only on an individual basis where forward thinking architectural practises and schools come together in a shared vision. To benefit all, this way of designing needs to become mainstream. Why settle for the mediocre when we have decades of empirical research that would allow us to produce better? Schools should demand such design. And we as practitioners should offer it. Together we could combat many of today’s issues that plague staff and pupils alike.

It may seem farfetched to imagine that architecture and interior design could have such power. In those schools that have already taken the plunge, there is no argument.

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