sampbarham October 16, 2012

My final year dissertation, discussing whether or not the architectural renovation program under Labour was the best approach to improving school and pupil performance.

Title: Rebuild or Reform? The Socia-Cultural, Psychological, Pedagogic and Architectural Implications Behind School Improvement in Britain
Referencing Style: Chicago
Word Count: 6,386
Grade: 70 (First)


Firstly, I would like to thank the educators and staff at the University of Plymouth for providing me with enough experience, encouragement and support to continue my degree and make it through to third year. I would also like to thank Gursewak Aulakh and David Gould for their help in expanding and pushing the boundaries of the topic and stretching my literate capabilities. In addition, I would like to acknowledge Emma Bassett and her children, whose interest in the architecture of their local school prompted me to consider this question in the first place.


Pedagogy has evolved and physical environments are struggling to keep up. Recent research has placed importance on spatial exploration and interaction as a key component in child learning. Not only are today’s schools technologically and architecturally outdated, they are spatially redundant as well. In response to growing criticism about the state of the nation’s schools the previous Government’s BSF programme sought to update over 3500 primary and secondary schools across the country.1 I visited four schools in Bristol: three rebuilds and one completely new design, to find out whether firstly, any noticeable changes had occurred and secondly how much of an effect these had had (if any). Unable to gather conclusive before-and-after data on exam results and attendance, I wasn’t able to gauge how much of an effect architecture had on these school’s performances. Yet research into building conditions and attendance of other schools confirmed that architecture does indeed make a difference. It must never be used as a singular or blind impetus for educational change however, as other factors such as management, cultural understanding and exceptional teaching all play a large role in school dynamics.

Architectural change is not guaranteed to work in every setting; it all depends on context, and finding out which schools need what. One final point to mention was that the National Curriculum may also be at fault for not truly encouraging a varied, holistic and spatially-aware approach to learning. This should be considered alongside the physicality of school buildings if school improvement is to be tackled on any large scale.

1 Angela Harrison, ‘School Building Plan Facing Cuts’, BBC News, (5th July 2010) [accessed November 2nd, 2010].


There is little doubt that education is of paramount importance and can have a pivotal and lasting effect in shaping our adult lives. We spend over 15,000 hours in school between the ages of 5 and 16, and outside of the home, it is the principal sphere of influence over our early childhood.2 Not only does school encourage learning, it serves as a monitor for our daily wellbeing, develops resilience, character and stimulates social contact.3

The success of a child’s education cannot be quantified through pedagogy or educational psychology alone. It is tied to a myriad of internal and external factors where peer groups, social conditioning, parental support, role-models and even the psychological profile of each individual themselves all play a part in a child’s educational development.4

In a speech in 2004, Tony Blair highlighted, “Of course what goes on in a school is far more important than the buildings themselves. But one contributes to the other”5 suggesting that the environment in which children learn also plays a key role in educational practice. Indeed, the last 10 years has shown a gradual but increased interest in the link between school design and pupil performance. Mainly because there is an emerging body of literature showing that where learning occurs matters and that most current learning environments are practically and technologically unsuited for 21st century society.6

Although halted and incomplete, Labour’s ‘Building Schools for the Future’ initiative sought to redesign or renew over 3500 primary and secondary schools in England.7 So in light of this, and considering the research into the quality and importance of a student’s immediate environment, is this actually where the money should be spent?

2 Jonathon Solity, The Learning Revolution (Hodder Education, 2008), p. 32.
3 Robbie Gilligan, ‘The Importance of Schools and Teachers in Child Welfare’, Child & Family Social Work, Vol. 3, (January 1998), pp. 13-25. p. 15.
4 Ben Koralek, and Maurice Mitchell ‘The Schools We’d Like: Young People’s Participation in Architecture’, in Children’s Spaces ed. by Mark Dudek (Architectural Press, 2005), pp. 114-153. p. 115.
5 CABE, ‘Assessing Secondary School Design Quality’ (Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, 2006), p. 10.
6 CABE, and RIBA, ‘21st Century Schools: Learning Environments of the Future’, Building Futures (2004) [accessed December 15th, 2010], p. 6.
7 Harrison, 2010

Children, Learning and Space

It takes roughly one month for an infant to focus and bring an object into their line of sight, a further three to develop tactility, mobility and a sense of smell and eight to identify and recognise noises.8 By the age of one, it is adept in utilising the full sensory palette to attune itself to its environment. As described by Kent Bloomer and Charles Moore, our very being “is informed fundamentally from haptic and orientating experiences early in life”.9 Unlike adults, whose over-reliance on words, vision and order in space has constituted a disconnection to the “olfactory and tactile worlds”,10 a child’s sight is strongly supported by non-visual experience.

(fig. 1) Children moving, crawling and playing in space

In his pioneering study, ‘How Children Learn’11 John Holt recognised the importance of an infant’s first few years; as this is when they are most apt in establishing self-rootedness and discovering their place in the world. At this age, children are incredibly curious, learning by playing, moving, observing, imitation and experimentation. Actions are intimately connected with objects, places and events and decisions are informed through past-experience and applied situational knowledge. (fig 1) Although it takes time and practice, this process is of great benefit to the young child. As Holt explains, “hardly an adult in a thousand, or ten thousand, could in any three years of his life learn as much … as every infant learns and grows in his first three years.”12

The importance of spatial interaction continues into pre-school. In Alison Clark’s article, ‘Talking and Listening to Children’13 nursery-school children were found to place particular importance on spaces that carried out a familiar set of actions, functions or social routine. Asked what her favourite place in the nursery was, 3 year-old Gaby remarked, “Inside – the fruit place. We always do singing there”.14 To young children, the physical and social aspects of their environment often blend together, and their descriptions of space tend to relate to both. The nursery’s music room, for example, was described by the children as both the “dancing room” and the “listening room” in addition to being the ‘large room with the big windows’.15

(fig. 2) Children have incredible creative capabilities that designers tend to forget

Children require a diverse array of interior and exterior architectural settings in order to be comfortable in their environment. Social spaces that promote human-interaction, collaboration and the notion of play are often noted by researchers as being of particular importance.16 What is often overlooked, however, is the value of child-centred, private spaces; spaces in which children can dream. Clarke found one such space in her study: “behind the shed at the far corner of the garden”. She noted that, “children would go to this corner to play before being asked to move away by an adult. It was one of the few places in the nursery where children were out of sight”.17 These spaces seem to hold great psychological significance to the younger pupil, a view that was not shared by the school’s supervisors.

What we forget is that children are unrivalled in their imaginative and creative capabilities. (fig 2) As Bruce Jilk highlights, uselessness in space actually encourages, “mental, bodily and physical creativity”.18 This is why many of these ‘little shelters’ are often found outside of the classroom, in non-spaces where children are free to conjure up their own interpretation of space.

It is now clear to educators, researchers and children alike that where learning occurs does indeed matter. Young children in particular have an unequivocal connection to their school environment inside and outside the institutional process of learning, that can affect their mood, behaviour and perception of education as a whole. Whilst intellectual discourse has adapted over the last 30 years to encompass this view, the physical environments in which they apply, have not. The problem with existing school settings is that they are built around an archaic and narrow interpretation of school, rendering them pedagogically and spatially defunct to the current generation of school children.

8 Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience (University of Minnesota Press, 2001), p. 20-23.
9 Kent C. Bloomer, and Charles W. Moore, Body, Memory and Architecture (The Yale University Press, 1977), p. 44.
10 Tuan, 2001, p. 21.
11 John Holt How Children Learn (Pitman Publishing Company, 1967).
12 John Holt How Children Fail (Pitman Publishing, 1964. p. 82).
13 Alison Clark, ‘Talking and Listening to Children’, in Children’s Spaces ed. by Mark Dudek (Architectural Press, 2005), pp. 1-13.
14 Clark, 2005, p. 9.
15 Ibid, 2005, p. 8.
16 Michael Laris, ‘Designing for Play’, in Children’s Spaces ed. by Mark Dudek (Architectural Press, 2005), pp. 14-29
17 Clark, 2005, p. 9.
18 Bruce A. Jilk, ‘Place Making and Change in Learning Environments’, in Children’s Spaces ed. by Mark Dudek (Architectural Press, 2005), pp. 30-43. p. 33.

Learning Environments: A Case for Change?

From the control and discipline orientated values of Victorian Britain, to the current child-centric, individualistic views of today, pedagogy has undergone great shifts since the inception of mass education. Whilst there has been elements of non-conformism, school design has generally mirrored the attitudes and expectations of society.

(fig. 3) Order, structure and discipline in the Victorian classroom

Under the Education Act of 1870, the establishment of Victorian board schools reflected a powerful, societal need for adults to “contain and condition young people into [becoming] responsible citizens capable of taking their place in a productive society”.19 As Mark Dudek asserts, the spaces for education were generally regarded as necessary but tended to be seen as “secondary to the delivery of ‘instruction’… discipline and correct moral teaching”.20 The physical layout of the Victorian classroom represented the strict and institutional method in which the school master would conduct his lessons. Ordered rows of chairs and desks seated lines of pliant children; “factory fodder”,21 to be moulded, disciplined and ground into compliance. (fig 3)

20th century pedagogy catered more to the enlightening of pupils to the benefits of learning and knowledge than to the enforcement of educational discipline. The socialist notion that all children should have access to education was reflected in the architectural approach to 20th century school construction. The economic situation of post-war Britain coupled with a Fordist22 approach to manufacturing lead to a rise in mass produced, pre-fabricated forms. These schools were cheap, efficient and fit for purpose: solutions to the necessary requirement of mass-education. The learning spaces themselves were designed around the modernist’s ‘form follows function’ philosophy with individual classrooms reflecting a new-found specialism in teaching.

(fig. 4) The pre-fabricated classroom: cheap, fit-for-purpose but inefficient

Although 21st century discourse has given rise to a more holistic view of learning that places greater emphasis on spatial awareness and environmental competency, the school and classroom environments have generally remained unchanged. “To this day, school communities in the UK are still – typically – housed in [these] Victorian or post-1945 buildings”.23 These structures may have been adequate in the past, but are now architecturally and pedagogically unfit for today’s generation of school children.

In addition to being technologically outdated, the build quality of many schools is simply not good enough. In an independent study, CABE found that many of these schools do not comply with the high standards of design and construction that is now expected today.24 Not only do school buildings fail to satisfy basic criteria, such as the ‘availability of natural light’, ‘good temperature control’ and ‘sustainable and renewable materials’, half of current secondary schools are also ‘not easily maintained’ with many already or in danger of disrepair.25 (fig 4)

In response to this, the BSF initiative under the previous Government sought to “rebuild or renew every secondary school in England by 2020 in the biggest capital investment in education for 50 years”.26 I visited four spearhead schools as part of Bristol’s redevelopment initiative in an attempt to gauge the level architectural of improvement.27 This following section analyses these schools using current literature and CABE’s ‘good school design guide’, a client-based guideline formulated by pupils, staff, parents and the wider community.28

19 Koralek and Mitchell, 2005, p. 116.
20 Mark Dudek, Architecture of Schools: The New Learning Environments (Architectural Press, 2000), p. 11.
21 Jilk, 2005, p. 30.
22 Industrial, efficient, assembly-line construction.
23 Koralek and Mitchell, 2005, p. 116.
24 CABE, 2006
25 Ibid, 2006, p. 27.
26 CABE, 2006, p. 2.
27 See pdf download for school descriptions.
28 CABE, 2006, p. 21.

Schools of the Future: A Critical Case Study

Sense of Place

CABE illustrates the need for schools to have visual impact.29 Redcliffe’s sweeping curve of blue and green is a marked improvement over the tired and regimented 1960’s concrete structure that it replaces. In contrast Redland Green’s sensitive integration and softer materialistic choices are much less dramatic but are more personal and engaging to the younger pupil. Although Cotham and Ashton Park are hampered somewhat as more of the existing fabrications have been retained; the new buildings, where integrated, are no less effective in establishing a modern sense of space. Ashton Court’s light, open and naturally ventilated central atrium is particularly successful, especially when compared to the main school and the 1980’s sixth-form block. (figs 5 & 6)

Yet visual impact is not summative of good school design; it should also help pupils feel safe, valued and taken care of. The notion of “belonging” (a positive association between pupil and environment) characterises a successful sense of place.30 I observed ‘exhibition’ zones in Redcliffe that pupils use to showcase their best work; allowing: (i) a degree of customisation over their learning environment and (ii) a means to recognise achievement and good work. In both Cotham and Ashton Park, coloured lockers are used, associating individuals to ‘house zones’ and creating feelings of familiarity and ownership.

As Augustin explains, “When spaces look designed… both students and teachers feel that the people who have created the spaces really value what is going on in them”.31 In a recent study, Valkiria Durán Narucki recognised a link between building condition and performance.32 Ashton Court has seen a similar trend with an increase in attendance, a dramatic reduction in litter and an absence of graffiti. Although it’s too early to tell, this pattern suggests the other schools will follow suit.

(fig. 5) Narrow, cramped corridor in Ashton Court’s existing sixth-form block

(fig. 6) Light, open and naturally ventilated atrium space in Ashton Court’s new teaching block

29 CABE, 2006, p. 21.
30 Dak Kopec, Environmental Psychology for Design (Fairchild Publications Inc, 2006), p. 198.
31 Sally Augustin, Place Advantage: Applied Psychology for Interior Architecture (John Wiley & Sons Inc, 2009), p. 221.
32 Valkiria Durán-Narucki, ‘School Building Condition, School Attendance, and Academic Achievement in New York Public Schools: A Mediation Model’, Journal of Environmental Psychology, Vol. 28, (March 2008), pp. 278-286.

Ease of Movement

(fig. 7) Redland Green’s light, colourful central axis

“A good school will have wide corridors” recommends CABE.33 It is understood that narrow, cramped corridors increase physical contact, and thus heightens the potential for disruption. One particular single-width corridor in Redcliffe’s old 1960s main block was renowned for an event fondly termed the ‘scrum’, whereby the one-way movement policy was routinely and systematically ignored. Alexander deplores the use of corridors in the first place, suggesting that open social nodes and public spheres are much more effective.34 A common and compromising design solution, (congruent in both Redcliffe and Redland’s design) is to arrange classrooms and facilities along a “central ‘street’ or pedestrian spine” allowing corridors to be kept to a minimum.

As research suggests that disruptive behaviour is most likely to occur outside or on the way to lessons, it is essential that distance between lessons is as short as possible.35 Alexander suggests circulation spaces should also have a feeling of “great generosity”36 in order to reduce the potential for interference, and while all the schools observed boast wider corridors, Ashton Court’s new teaching block exemplifies this notion best. In between lessons the central atrium becomes an ‘engaging hub’ of activity as pupils have space to circumnavigate the bright, naturally lit, double-width corridors.

Good circulation not only harbours the “efficient and safe movement of students”,37 but can assist in orientation and way-finding.38 Redland Green, in particular, uses a visually stimulating palette of red and pink along its central axis to orient and interest its pupils. (fig 7) While Cotham uses a covered walkway to engage users with the existing locality and context. While these new corridors are improvements, larger and more open circulation spaces increase noise traffic. The staircases in Redcliffe are a particular culprit, becoming almost intolerable at peak usage.

33 CABE, 2006, p. 21.
34 Christopher Alexander, A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction (Oxford University Press, 1977), p. 131.
35 Eleanor Curtis, School Builders (John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 2003), p. 12.
36 Alexander, 1977, p. 131.
37 Architects Design Partnership, Education and Contextualism (Black Dog Publishing, 2007), p. 65.
38 Kopec, 2006, p. 202.


(fig. 8) Large windows with a generous natural view in a Redcliffe science lab

Although “a well-proportioned classroom takes into consideration a number of factors”, being ‘too small’ is probably the single most common aspect of 1950s secondary school design.39 Crowding is linked directly to density levels and can lead to “lower task performances, poor memory and feelings of anxiousness”.40 Ashton Park and Redcliffe have, on average, bigger classrooms than the school blocks they replaced; with specialist areas increased by up to a third. Cotham’s art rooms in particular, exhibit a large floor area, huge double paned windows and double height ceilings. It is important to note that although more suited to specialist teaching styles, learning in classrooms of this type and size is prone to more kinetic and visual disturbances.41

Research suggests that views over natural space42 and access to daylight43 are positively advantageous to students and whilst Redcliffe, Redland Green and Ashton Court’s new blocks have bigger windows; specialist classrooms (such as Art, D.T. and Science) have been orientated specifically to take advantage of natural views and light. (fig 8)

(fig. 9) High vantage points and numerous inner windows make passive supervision of Redcliffe’s pedestrian street relatively easy

CABE recognises that school buildings should encourage good behaviour with “no nooks and crannies allowing unsociable things to happen”.44 Dak Kopec shares a similar view: “Reducing visual boundaries by using more windows effectively prevents behavioural problems in schools”.45 Indeed, there is almost nowhere inside Redcliffe’s new build that is shielded from the inner corridors. (fig 9) Similarly, behaviour can be monitored by a select few staff at key points in Ashton Park’s design. Cotham is less controlling, with a more varied and diverse school fabric. This has lead to a more interesting and resourceful interpretation of space. In one instance a pupil was caught clambering up the side of the covered walkway to see if he could reach the top.

39 CABE, 2006, p. 30.
40 Kopec, 2006, p. 190.
41 Ibid, 2006, p. 196.
42 Myriam B.C. Aries, Jennifer A. Veitc, and Guy R. Newsham, ‘Windows, View, and Office Characteristics Predict Physical and Psychological Discomfort’, Journal of Environmental Psychology, Vol. 30, (January 2010), pp. 533-541.
43 Na Wang, and Mohamed Boubekri, ‘Investigation of Declared Seating Preference and Measured Cognitive Performance In a Sunlit Room’, Journal of Environmental Psychology, Vol. 30, (January 2010), pp. 226-238.
44 CABE, 2006, p. 21.
45 Kopec, 2006, p. 199.


(fig. 10) Redland Green’s sensitive variation of green space

“Learning takes place in both informal and more formal ways” and it is foolish to assume that learning stops at the classroom door.46 The school must be considered as one working, active agent where both classroom and non-classroom places contribute to a child’s learning. The notion of ‘play’ is particularly important in the breaking up of sedentary activities; so exterior spaces need to be abundant and versatile.47

New courtyards frame Ashton Court’s teaching block, replacing a dark and incoherent series of outdoor passages; forming open and closed social environments that can be used all year round. Cotham’s enclosed and redundant squares have been replaced with larger and more diverse spaces that support a wide variety of activities. Particularly impressive was the beginnings of a wildlife garden near Clarence Road in Redcliffe, where pupils had been tasked with researching and planting a new pond in order to encourage animal life.
Although social and green space is important, there must also be areas that support leisure, sports and external learning. Redland Green is the most harmonious and complete in its use of outdoor space; where the sports field, tarmac play spaces, vegetable plot and existing meadow coexist within the landscape and intertwine successfully around the school structure. (fig 10)

46 Architects Design Partnership, 2007, p. 62.
47 Laris, 2005, p. 25.


The national curriculum and pedagogic approach is constantly evolving, “therefore the school environment needs to be flexible”.48 The physical structure of a learning environment (e.g. the arrangement of space and furniture) is of particular importance. Augustin agrees; “different classroom shapes promote varied learning experiences”.49 As well as moveable desks and chairs, Redcliffe and Ashton Court employ ‘splinter’ or ‘breakout’ zones adjacent to classrooms that are used when engaging in less-traditional learning activities such as reading or group discussion. This is successful design application as these ‘reading niches’ will provide students both increased “concentration and audibility”.50

(fig. 11) Specialist food-tech classroom in Cotham, with flexible desks that allow for a more traditional classroom setup

It is important to note that the most successful designs suit the subject they are designed for whilst maintaining a high level of adaptability and scope for rearrangement. Out of the four schools, Cotham had the most flexible classroom layouts; whereby moveable partitions and flexible desk spaces in specialist teaching areas could be adjusted to accommodate a wide variety of teaching styles.
Flexibility is also required from the school as a building. ADP explains, “with increasing focus on the extended school day and the provision of out of school hours learning… the need for community-friendly spaces has never been more important”.51 Redcliffe boasts a separate public entrance and terrace that allows the hall to become mixed-use for productions and plays, whilst 15% of Ashton Court has been made accessible to the community outside of school hours.52

Long-term flexible solutions are necessary in order for schools to stay relevant and future proof. I am reassured that Redland Green’s framed construction and non-fixed walls will allow for adaptation over time,53 Redcliffe and Ashton Court are less successful in this sense, and will be more prone to ageing and inapplicability.

48 Dudek, 2000, p. 65.
49 Augustin, 2009, p. 225.
50 Dudek, 2000, p. 49.
51 Architects Design Partnership, 2007, p. 63.
52 Bristol Local Education Partnership, ‘Ashton Park School’, Bristol Local Education Partnership [accessed January 16th, 2011].
53 Helen Groves, interviewed by author, ‘Interview with BDP: Building Design Partnership’, [November 29, 2010]. See pdf download.


In essence student requirements are simple: light, comfortable and inspiring environments that encourage the process of learning. If a pupil is uncomfortable in their environment, they will struggle to apply themselves to their work. A good colour scheme is just one step in formulating a positive school ambience. Redcliffe’s design incorporates an appropriately stimulating and low-saturation colour palette that features on one wall in each classroom. Redland on the other hand uses energising reds and pinks to lift the mood of students traversing the central street.

(fig. 12) Energising notice boards from Redland Green’s central street

As already explored, the quality and quantity of light directly impacts a student’s performance. Although all classrooms observed had an adequate balance of natural and artificial light, additional high-level windows in Cotham made the first floor classrooms particularly bright and pleasant.

Ergonomically designed furniture is also important, especially considering “the length of time students are expected to stay seated”.54 This is largely overlooked in Redcliffe, however, where constraints have seen existing school furniture reintroduced into the new classrooms. In contrast to CABE’s guidelines,55 cuts have also affected the quality of furnishings in Cotham, as low-cost fittings were reported to have leaked and failed.

54 Kopec, 2006, p. 191.
55 CABE, 2006, p. 21.


Ignoring a few minor discrepancies, these four examples are generally synonymous with the environmental principals of good school design. Yet educational improvement is a complex issue. What is left to explore is how far changes such as these effect the overall competency of a school’s performance in relation to other known effects such as the quality of the teaching or the effect of one’s social background.

The Importance of Architecture in School Improvement

The key argument of this essay concerns the notion of political space: how far can design influence behaviour? Operant conditioning, the notion that design can reinforce a required behaviour, is found in the institutional designs of prisons and youth institutions to the clubs and casinos of Las Vegas. While there is evidence to suggest that certain visual and stimulative cues are likely to prompt a desired response, there are never any guarantees.56 Even in these artificial scenarios , total control remains elusive.

As a casino can never force people to spend, a school can never force children to learn. A child’s success in school is tied to a multitude of individual, social and political factors in addition to the environment of the classroom. So with the government pouring substantial financial investments into school buildings, is it really worth it?

(fig. 13) A dark, narrow corridor from Redcliffe’s existing 1960’s teaching block

There is little doubt that environmental stressors (noise, light, visual distractions) impede a child’s ability to learn. In a study by Evans and Stecker exposure to even acute environmental stressors lead to a deficit in task performance and the experiencing of learned helplessness.57 Similarly, poor environmental conditions (air pollutants, poor water, degrading of materials) have an obvious, detrimental effect on school attainment.58 Alan McLean questions the positive capability of a school environment, but agrees that working conditions, “can be very demotivating if they are not right”.59

Older schools are also more prone to the effects of anti-social behaviours such as bullying and graffiti, with their “narrow corridors, dead ends and intimidating toilet blocks”.60 This statement is applicable to Redcliffe and Ashton Court whose existing school blocks typified these elements of poor 1960’s school design. (fig 13) Eleanor Nicholson upholds that old and badly maintained buildings reflect an anti-education culture where the duality of learning (both physically and mentally) is not adequately supported by the environment.61 Indeed, “the physical fabric of a school building conveys messages to both pupils and staff,” explains Daniel Green and Patricia Turrell, affecting their “self esteem and the way in which they approach their work”.62 If ignored, graffiti and litter soon become symbols of an uncaring school environment. Even trivial matters such as a broken toilet can lead to feelings of disconnection and detachment.63

(fig. 14) Clean, graffiti-free playground in Ashton Court

“It is about pride” explains head-teacher, Geoff Hampton, after investing money into refurbishments for his then-failing school in Northicote, Wolverhampton. “Something made the kids think before picking up that brick and throwing it… having a school that looks good is about telling children they’re worth something”.64 Ashton Court is a prime example of this notion as building investment has indeed caused a reduction in litter, graffiti and vandalism. (fig 14)

This goes even further as research suggests that there is in fact an inverse relationship between a school building’s condition and standardized test scores.65 Durán-Narucki justified this through attendance. He found that in the poorest of schools, teachers and students tended to vote with their feet and left. High levels of student and staff mobility and absenteeism has obvious, negative connotations,66 and explains the relative drop in achievement. After all, “children don’t learn as much if they spend less time in school”.67 “School attendance mediated the relationship between school building condition and academic achievement” thus linking design, behaviour and performance.68

While these effects should not be undervalued they will not apply to every pupil in every context. It is essential to note that other factors influence school performance and that some sink schools require a more complete and dynamic model of improvement, where building conditions are improved alongside other methods of social and pedagogic change.

56 Kopec, 2006, p. 22.
57 Gary W. Evans, and Rachel Stecker, ‘Motivational Cosequences of Environmental Stress’, Journal of Environmental Psychology, Vol. 24, (June 2004), pp. 143-165.
58 Gary W. Evans, and Elyse Kantrowitz, ‘Socioeconomic Status and Health: The Potential Role of Environmental Risk Exposure’, Public Health, Vol. 23, (May 2002), pp. 303-331.
59 Alan McLean, The Motivated School (Paul Chapman Publishing, 2003), p. 121.
60 Sarah Richardson, ‘Charter 284 Education: The Economic Case for Investing in Schools’, Building Magazine (23rd February 2010) [accessed January 2nd, 2011].
61 Eleanor Nicholson, ‘The School Building as Third Teacher’, in Children’s Spaces ed. by Mark Dudek (Architectural Press, 2005), pp. 44-65. p. 44.
62 Daniel Green, and Patricia Turrell, ‘School Building Investment and Impact on Pupil Performance’, Facilities, Vol. 21, (May 2005), pp. 253-261. p. 254.
63 Durán-Narucki, 2008, p. 284.
64 Dudek, 2000, p. 43.
65 Durán-Narucki , 2008, p. 284.
66 Russel W. Rumberger, and Scott L. Thomas, ‘The Distribution of Dropout and Turnover Rates Among Urban and Suburban High Schools’, Sociology of Education, Vol. 73, (January 2000), pp. 39-67.
67 Gary W. Evans, Min J. Yoo, and John Sipple, ‘The Ecological Context of Student Achievement: School Building Quality Effects are Exacerbated by High Levels of Student Mobility’, Journal of Environmental Psychology, Vol. 30, (January 2010), pp. 239-244. p. 240.
68 Durán-Narucki, 2008, p. 283.

Classroom Dynamics: The Importance of Teachers

Let us not forget the role and responsibilities of the teachers. Indeed, “any architect designing schools must realise that the fundamental success of a school is down to the quality of the teaching”.69 There is no denying the importance of teachers in child development as effective teaching is often cited as the single-most important factor in a child’s ability to learn. As well as the effective dissemination and distribution of knowledge across the classroom, they also serve as positive role-models confidants, enforcers and motivators. (fig 15)

(fig. 15) Successful teachers do not just teach. They engage, encourage and support their pupils

There is no doubting that “teacher behaviours and teacher-student interactions influence classroom climate”.70 Children respond flexibly to the attitudes and motives of teachers. As David Donald (et. al) explains “enthusiastic teachers encourage enthusiasm in their students”.71 Even the way in which teachers speak to pupils conveys an underlying message, “our manner of talking to young people can quickly – and without our realising it – convey the wrong message and so arouse a child’s resistance, defensiveness and even defiance”.72 A student’s ability to relate and connect with teachers will have a lasting effect on their school development. Anita Woolfolk recognised the importance of teacher-student relationships (particularly in early development), whereby certain characteristics would predict patterns of behaviour and achievement later on in school.73 A successful teacher is “not just an instructor for academic skills… but also a confidant and positive model for personal identification”.74 For students that lack social and parental support, teachers are the only reliable adult confidants both inside and outside of the home.

Students vary widely in aptitude, determination, personality and attitude towards self-achievement; and while schools are supportive institutions to the able child; they are incredibly nervous places to be when children are unable to keep up. Targets and goals, (representative models of achievement), become badges of self-worthlessness when they are not met. As Woolfolk explains: “ultimately the children come to believe that they aren’t very good at schoolwork… low expectations along with a lower-quality educational experience can lead to learned helplessness”.75 It is therefore essential that students feel valued and are adequately supported and motivated in their learning. As McLean explains, “teachers can be transformers or amplifiers of student motivation”.76 An essential quality that is reflective in both attitude and grade.

In worst case scenarios, “a significant proportion of the pupils in these classes resent being stimulated and refuse to take up a challenge”.77 Some children, as Martin Johnson reports, will actively seek to disrupt every minute of the lesson and deny learning to others. In these scenarios teachers need to become experts in classroom management. Woolfolk observed that the best and most experienced teachers weren’t characterised by their ability to deal with problems, they were characterised by their ability at preventing them in the first place.78 (A skill not often focused on in their teacher training handbook). Yet when every single pupil, “is a committed opponent of state education,” it is indeed very difficult in attaining the high-levels of pupil achievement that the government requires of them.79 In these rare cases, the answer generally lies outside of the classroom.

69 Helen Groves, 2010. See pdf download.
70 Carolyn M, Evertson, and Carol S. Weinstein, Handbook of Classroom Management: Research, Practice, and Contemporary Issues. (Routledge, 2006), p. 414.
71 David Donald, Sandy Lazarus, and Peliwe Lolwana, Educational Psychology in Social Context (Oxford University Press South Africa, 1997), p. 145.
72 Jeremy Harvey, Valuing and Educating Young People: Stern Love the Lyward Way (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2006), p. 59.
73 Anita Woolfolk, Educational Psychology (Pearson, 2010), p. 6.
74 Bonnie Benard, ‘Fostering Resilience in Children’, Health (August 1995) [accessed November 4th, 2010].
75 Woolfolk, 2010, p. 165.
76 McLean, 2003, p. 23.
77 Martin Johnson, Failing School, Failing City: The Reality of Inner City Education (Jon Carpenter Publishing, 1999), p. 31.
78 Woolfolk, 2010, p. 432.
79 Johnson, 1999, p. 35.

The Effect of Social Background and Culture

It goes against the equal-opportunity theories of Bertrand Russell and 20th century pedagogy that a young person brought up in a certain setting should be disadvantaged from the start. Children aren’t born stupid and unmotivated, these traits are conditioned into their upbringing and will follow through into their education if unresolved. There are wider socio-political and cultural factors at work in addition to inner-school dynamics that politicians and educators tend to overlook. School failure is normally attributed to sub-par teaching or bad management, when in actuality, the root cause of student inability is often completely unrelated.

“School development always needs to be considered in its social context” argues David Donald.80 A school’s catchment area and locality is indicative of its social intake. So a renowned school in an affluent and wealthy district will likely attract pupils of that particular calibre, whereas a sink school, characterised by “low attainments and a socially and financially disadvantaged location” will intake a relatively deprived set of students.81 This is important because research suggests that an underprivileged social background will negatively impact an individual’s performance over the course of the school career.82 It has such a bearing that it is even possible to predict, with a high degree of accuracy, a school’s performance from no more than the social profile of its intake.83

(fig. 16) Teenagers are particularly prone to negative effects of peer pressure

There is no doubting then that the social climate of a pupil’s background is important. “Beyond schooling, young people learn, for ill as well as good, from popular culture, especially music, from parents and family structure, and perhaps most [importantly], from their peers”.84 Adolescence is a time when children are particularly vulnerable to feelings of acceptance and social standing. The gradual rejection of school uniform is a good indication of this fact, “…most pupils will turn up in on day one in Year 7 in a uniform provided by clothing grant, it does not take them long to find their feet, compare notes, and start the slide away from compliance”.85 Minor defiance’s such as these are normal and relatively harmless. (fig 16) The more negative influences of peer groups (drugs, alcohol, truancy) are a lot more damaging however and have a considerably greater effect on achievement.86

Parents are identified by teachers as a key factor to stable child development as they harbour a caring a consistent relationship and can teach a strong, coherent and consistent set of values. Several studies have shown that children who grow up in absolute poverty can rise above their background partly due to a positive parental influence and work ethic.87 The problem with the ‘underclass’ culture is that the social conditions make such a task extremely difficult. “Poverty breeds stress, and stress breeds unstable relationships, giving rise to complicated family structures”.88 In a study by Ted Wragg on school standards, “lack of parental support was cited as a major factor constraining pupil progress,” thus proving that the effects of social background and parental influence will resonate strongly into the classroom.89

Culture and racial ethics also have considerable effect as they shape child development. As Janice Wearmouth (et al.) explains, “the cultural context in which a child is reared shapes his or her thinking”.90 Take the case of migrant Asian students in America. Laurence Steinberg found that “at every level of measured ability” first generation migrant students outperformed their American neighbours, but interestingly, the second-generation did not. “In other words, there is clearly a strong cultural component to educational performance”.91

The case for Afro-Caribbean pupils is not so clear cut. Research frequents that the relative performance of black children in school is significantly lower in comparison to that of other ethnic types.92 This is not due to some predisposed cultural ‘ineptness’ but through a low shared perception of ability. Majors explains that the large body of research on culture, diversity and performance is in fact a culprit, leading to cultural stereotyping that resonates in both staff and student. In the classroom, “black students… experience differential expectations from teachers in the area of academic ability. When black and white males are compared, teachers tend to predict higher test results for white males than they do for black males”.93 This notion is particularly damaging to perceptions of self-ability, and also largely unfounded, as expected grades are largely outperformed in the final exams.94

These exclusions often originate from simple misconceptions. As explained by Blair, teachers show a form of ‘cultural dissonance’, where signals are misconstrued as being negative.95 “Teachers often label or view a Black child who demonstrates certain culture-specific behaviours as having an ‘attitude problem’ or even as being ignorant…” when in many cases they are simply showing “pride, confidence and [a]… positive sense of self-esteem and cultural identity”.96

There is no doubt that social and cultural specific issues have an impact on school performance. St George’s, the inner city comprehensive where Phillip Lawrence was stabbed in 1995, suffered many of the problems discussed in the paragraphs above. Yet even though on “special measures”,97 schools in this state can still be turned around. In her book, ‘Ahead of the Class’,98 head-teacher Marie Stubbs described how she and a select few, experienced members of staff begun systematically transforming the school. Alongside practical improvements such as restocking the library and the redecoration of classrooms, it’s was really about understanding potential, and respect. When the children felt like they were worth something they began to find value in their education. St George’s was a successful case in point, taking just four terms for Stubbs to transform the entire school into a place of “discipline, co-ordination and hope”.99

80 Donald et al, 1997, p. 123.
81 Solity, 2008, p. 44.
82 Ibid, 2008, p. 72.
83 Richard Webber, and Tim Butler, ‘Classifying Pupils By Where They Live: How Well Does This Predict Variations in their GCSE Results?’, Urban Studies, Vol. 44, (June 2007), pp. 1229-1253.
84 Stanley Aronowitz, ‘Education, Social Class, and the Sites of Pedagogy’, in If Classrooms Matter: Progressive Visions of Educational Environments eds. Jeffrey R. Di Leo, and Walter R. Jacobs (Routledge, 2004), pp. 37-54. p. 39.
85 Johnson, 1999, p. 60.
86 Donald, et al, 1997, pp. 227-228.
87 Ibid, 1997, p. 174.
88 Johnson, 1999, p. 46.
89 Solity, 2008, p. 63.
90 Janice Wearmouth, Ted Glynn, and Mere Berryman, Perspectives on Student Behaviour in Schools (Routledge, 2005), p. 55.
91 Phillip Brown, and Hugh Lauder, ‘Poverty, Learning Opportunities, and the Social Construction of Collective Intelligence’, in Culture and Learning ed. by Mark Olssen (Information Age Publishing Inc, 2004), pp. 315-344. p. 332
92 Richard Majors, Educating Our Black Children: New Directions and Radical Approaches (Routledge, 2001), p. 3.
93 Majors, 2001, p. 5.
94 OFSTED, ‘Annual Report of Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools: Standards and Quality in Education 1999/2000’ OFSTED Reports (1999) [accessed January 12th 2011].
95 Wearmouth, et al, 2005, p. 63.
96 Donald, et al, 1997, pg. 59.
97 A term for schools that are threatened with closure.
98 Marie Stubbs, Ahead of the Class (John Murray, 2003).
99 Marie Stubbs, ‘The Secrets of an Inspiration Headmistress’ The Week, (10 May 2003), pp. 40-41. p. 40.

Rebuild or Reform?

It should now be clear that there is not one, universal method of school improvement. Moos’s model of school and classroom determinants shows how many different impetus’s act upon a school’s success.100 (fig 17) Good architecture does not necessarily make a school good, as high-performing schools exist in low-performance environments.101 As I have discovered, an atmosphere of mutual respect and understanding, strong management and exceptional teaching is needed before educators can begin to discuss methods of architectural change.

This was largely the case with Redcliffe, Cotham and Ashton Court whose strong and motivated teaching units were in constant conflict with less-than-ideal physical environments. Staff mentioned how inefficient school buildings made teaching more difficult, and that ageing structures and ‘concrete cancer’ made maintenance more complicated and costly. In these scenarios, architectural change is necessary in order to maintain, let alone improve, existing levels of performance.

(fig. 17) Moos’s 1979 model of the determinants of classroom climage

The need for good architecture must not be overlooked. Being a new school, Redland Green was unique in that it was unaffected by pre-conceptions of social intake, background or the quality of its teaching. Yet the high standard of architecture that BDP insisted upon in their design has made the school extremely sought after to both students and teachers. Of course, there is no proving that this is the only reason for such a success, but it does go to show that good architecture can create a “virtuous cycle”102 of performance if it attracts good managers and teachers.

The BSF programme is an encouraging start in improving school performance in Britain as long as architectural change is considered alongside other methods of school reform. The schools I observed generally complied with this notion but I can see architectural improvement taking priority over more important factors if the government and educators are not careful. What I have noticed however, is that there is an intimate connection between children, learning and space that is not yet reflected in the way we teach our kids. I am a little concerned that these new spaces will not be fully exploited, simply because teachers and students do not yet know how to.

(fig. 18) School spaces are currently driven by a narrow interpretation of education and learning

It is the fault of the National Curriculum that children have little to no environmental competency beyond that of a pencil, chair and desk. Classroom spaces are still catered towards the fulfilment of tests, assessments and exams like they have been for the last 60 years. (fig 18) As Jilk summarises “Our efficiency – or ‘outcome’ -driven learning environments become barriers to expanding the possibilities for learning and the creativity of learning”.103 School children generally recognise their environment as significant beyond the intellectual process of learning so why can’t educationalists and designers support this view as well. Whilst the schools I observed have begun to consider this problem, (with the introduction of extra-curricular spaces such as the sustainability pond in Redcliffe and a vegetable plot in Redland), they are not quite there yet.

Perhaps it is time to start looking outside of Britain for inspiration. Take the Ingunnarskoli in Reykjavik, Iceland for example. Where the architects, in collaboration with a ‘committee’ of end-users have created a permanent but incomplete structure that encloses a series of temporary partitions and moveable furniture to support a more diverse and flexible method of teaching.104 (fig 19) Similarly in the Evangelische Gesamtschule Gelsenkirchen school in Germany, students were consulted in the concept stage to envisage a form that was truly supportive of their individual learning styles.105

(fig. 19) A permanent but incomplete classroom in Ingunnarskoli allows for a diverse variation of teaching spaces

Creating learning environments that support a progressive view of education is one method of tackling spatial redundancy in schools; but perhaps the answer is even simpler than that. Outside the UK, “Teachers are given advice as to use of space within the school, to aid and broaden the field of learning. Within the UK… there is little advice at teacher training level as how best to use the facilities and spaces of the classroom”.106 If training teachers in spatial awareness and environmental competency achieves similar results to that of those working in these specially designed academies, then perhaps this is what needs to be done.

Whatever the case, intellectual and academic discourse now needs to inform government initiatives so that children and teachers are adequately supported within their learning environments. When the national curriculum adapts to support a more holistic, individual and progressive approach to learning maybe then can we begin envisaging spaces that will truly satisfy these criteria.

100 Steve Higgins, Elaine Hall, Kate Wall, Pam Woolner, and Caroline McCaughey, ‘The Impacts of School Environments: A Literature Review’, (Design Council, 2005), p. 35.
101 St George’s Roman Catholic Secondary School in Maida Vale is a case in point.
102 Higgins, at al, 2005, p. 35.
103 Jilk, 2005, p. 32.
104 Bruce A. Jilk, Design Down Process: Designing a School in Iceland with Its Users (OECD Publishing, 2002), p. 9.
105 Curtis, 2003, p. 16.
106 Dudek, 2000, p. 69.


In conclusion, many impetus’s act upon a school’s success. It is obvious that re-cladding or rebuilding a socially and pedagogically defunct school will not root out the problem. Yet, in principle, the architectural implications of a new school build can be significant in the right setting. As explored, a poor physical environment can impede learning, lower staff and pupil attendance and, although a lot harder to quantify, create a disconnection between school and pupil that is key to a student’s success. There will always be exceptions; “fine child-centred programmes can exist in less than wonderful buildings. Conversely, rigid, unjust, cold and insensitive programmes can take place in state-of-the-art buildings”.107

Yet, school improvement must always be considered in context. Schools that have a strong and successful teaching unit, but poor furnishings and resources will benefit more from a redevelopment. Conversely, schools that are plagued with social and behavioural problems may require more experienced teachers, smaller classes and a firmer, more-inclusive school atmosphere before any sort of architectural change takes place.

Of course, a child who deplores school and all that it entails will despise the building no matter what guise it clads itself in. Learning is subjective; and in this instance it is up to the teachers and key members of staff to enlighten the pupil to its benefits.

What has been observed is that children are somewhat removed from the process of their education. They have very little say in the design of their buildings, the way in which they are taught and the subjects that they learn. In order to truly tackle school improvement, perhaps we should start listening to them first.

107 Nicholson, 2005, p. 43.



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