Ruth Benn and Rebecca Skelton teach at Sparrow Farm Infants & Nursery school in Feltham, close to Heathrow Airport. Rebecca began working at the school in September 2013, after completing a PGCE in Primary Education while Ruth joined the school a year later after finishing her BA in Education. They both work in the Year One classrooms in the main building of the school, which dates back to the late 1950s. In the past year, two building projects have been completed: a new nursery building, detached from the original site; and a small self-contained building known as the ‘eco-hut’ or ‘the nest’, designed for small group or one to one interventions, teaching and assessment. We talked in Rebecca’s classroom after the pupils had gone home for the day on June 8th 2015.
Emma: Can I ask you both about your own early experiences of school buildings? What was your school like?
Rebecca: I went to two primary schools that were very different. One was a very small one-form entry so we didn’t have a lot of outside space but this sort of architecture, this sort of style. Very old. Very small, cluttered classrooms. And I don’t remember there being any extra sort of break-out areas. Everything was done in the classroom. Whereas the other primary school I went to, which was two-storeys, had a lot of open space, a lot of extra areas where you would go and do reading or sewing or various things.
Emma: And did you prefer one or the other?
Rebecca: No, I don’t think I did at that age. I don’t think I had a preference.
Ruth: When did you change (schools)?
Rebecca: When I was eight.
Emma: But now, looking back on it, would you prefer to work as a teacher to work in one type of school rather than the other?
Rebecca: Yes, I’d prefer to work in one that’s got more space.
Emma: Just because of the volume of space?
Rebecca: Yes, and just … outside spaces and inside spaces gives you that flexibility. If you want to do something extra or your TA (Teaching Assistant) wants to do something.
Emma: But when you’re a child, I guess, you …
Rebecca: And actually it changes because when you’re a child if you get taken out, children want to be taken out because they think they’re being … special.
Ruth: That’s what we were saying earlier …
Rebecca: Whereas if everything was done in the classroom no-one would have that perception of why you’re going out.
Emma: What about you, Ruth?
Ruth: When I was in the nursery they completely rebuilt my school so I think I was the last year to use the nursery and they knocked down the old school and built a new school. So It grew into three form entry, I think it started off as two-form entry, and every year had an ‘out of the class but inside’ area and, as I remember it, every class had a kitch … like a cooker, I’m pretty sure. It was on the corridor but it was all open plan so there were the three classes that would go round and then a big open indoor space and then it would be the next three classes and another big open indoor space.
Rebecca: Was it open plan? Were the classrooms open plan?
Ruth: No, not the classrooms.
Rebecca: Just that each classroom had a little break out area?
Ruth: Yes, each year group. And each of the classes would open out into a courtyard, it was like a U shape, if you know what I mean, so all of the classes open out into the courtyard and that’s where would go home from but my mum worked in the school so I would go … inside (laughs).
Emma: So did you have a favourite place in the school, thinking back to those early schools?
Rebecca (pause). I don’t think so! I don’t know. I liked to work so I think I just liked being in the classroom.
Ruth: We had quite a good library, quite a big library, a volume of books (indistinct) quite massive.
Rebecca: I don’t remember really going in the library though. I remember it being really dusty and up some stairs.
Ruth: I think I remember it most because it had a new thumb scanner (laughs) if you wanted to take out a book.
Emma: Was there a place you didn’t like in the school?
Rebecca: There was one room that you used to go and do … I remember having to go and sit my SATs paper in it in Year Six and it was an old cloakroom that they then turned into an extra room but it was really dingy. And they did nothing and the coat pegs were still, like, on the wall above you and they just put tables inside it. And there was no environment to it and we were supposed to go and sit these extra SATs papers.
Ruth: We had a music room that was just like a rectangle and everything was against the wall so it was really empty, so you felt quite exposed with everything pushed up against the walls … er, I don’t know …
Emma: Where did you both learn to read? Did you learn to read in school?
Rebecca: No, I learned to read at home, my mum’s a teacher so I went to school a year before I should have done, to nursery a year before I should have done. She taught there, so she taught me. I used to love reading so I was as fluent as you can be when you go into school.
Emma: So how was that, being fluent and, presumably, with a number of other children not being able to read?
Rebecca: I was quite bored.
Ruth: Do you remember that though?
Rebecca: Yes, because I used to love reading, and I used to get quite bored with it because I could do it. And they didn’t teach like they do now, with phonics. And I remember being able to read and I just used to read the same books, Billy Blue Hat, Roger Red Hat and Jennifer Yellow Hat and the Biff and Chip books.
Ruth: Oh we read those books, those have been around for years.
Rebecca: Yes, they were, Billy Blue Hat’s been around for ages.
Emma: And what about you, Ruth?
Ruth: I only know from talking about it with my mum now, when we’re talking about phonics and stuff. So she said that me and my sisters and brothers would just look at the word and know it. You just learnt by, I don’t know, looking at the word and we’d pick it up really easily. And she says that my brother would not then want to read, he’d be too lazy because he knew he knew how to do it, so he’d say ‘It’s your turn’. I don’t think I had a problem with reading, no.
Emma: Did you have book corners in your classrooms?
Rebecca: Er, I think I had one in my second school but I couldn’t tell you about when I was younger. Nothing jumps out like ‘Oh, amazing book corner!’ I think it was very rigid, we could borrow one book a week.
Emma: Ruth, you did a BA in teaching, in primary. And did they teach you anything about school design: I’m not thinking about whole school design but classroom design?
Ruth: They did talk about learning environment …
Rebecca: Ours was literally, I think we had … because it was a PGCE (a one-year post-degree teaching qualification) it was, like, a lecture for two hours right at the end of the year once we’d done our school placements and they had to mop up at the end of the year and I think we had a two hour lecture about classroom environments and it was more directed about ‘When you get your new classroom, this is what you need to have in it’, it wasn’t an actual idea about …
Emma: Do you think it would have helped to have had that?
Rebecca: Yes, everything I thought about having in my classroom environment was picked up on from when I went in placements and things I saw in classrooms, or going on Pinterest or things like that.
Ruth: Especially because when I came in, at the end of summer, before we started, everything is in the middle of the room and it’s just like a blank canvas and it’s like ‘I don’t know where to begin’.
Rebecca; I took pictures ….
Ruth: I did, yeah …
Rebecca: I took pictures. When I started, I took over from somebody and so when I came in at the end of the year I took pictures of her classroom, so when I came in in September and everything was in the middle of the room, my mum came to help me and I just put everything back where she had it, from the pictures, and I started, and I’ve gradually changed things around. Because you really don’t, it’s only from testing things out that you think about how things work. And actually some of it you can’t change, like I don’t like my whiteboard being there, I think it’s stupid to have it next to the interactive board, whereas in Ruth’s classroom its really useful because she’s got a separate … and the other Year One classroom they have it on that wall so you can have it on a separate teaching space, your TA could go over there, but I can’t change that and if I asked to change it I’m sure someone would tell me where to go! (laughs). You can’t move it. You can only change really what you … and really silly things, like the walls are really hard, the bricks are really hard to stick things on and that’s why my classroom looks so tatty because things just fall off the wall and even then at the end of the year you have to take everything off the wall, everything has to be off …
Ruth: … but you do learn through trial and error. I’ve moved my tables around about three times this year …
Rebecca: And I’ve moved … that chest of drawers was sticking out a different way. And it was actually my TA last year who … I think I said something, I really struggled to see … I mean maybe that’s the issue about taking photos. I’d struggled to see it in a different light and she was like, ‘How about we try putting that over there?’ and I was ‘ooh yeah, gives us this whole extra ….’
Emma: So if you could say something to the architects … if you perhaps were going into a new school, what are the important things that would really affect you day to day?
Rebecca: I think it’s a bit like the whole early years idea, having clear spaces, so thinking .. you’ve got your art corner but thinking about the two boards next to each other (position of whiteboards), but thinking of having a separate learning area and having a corner space …
Emma: So you want different learning areas?
Rebecca: Yes, yes, so a bit more like in early years …
Ruth: … Somewhere they could be a bit more independent, somewhere a TA could take a group and so whole carpet space …
Rebecca: Yes! So think about that in terms of …
Emma: So would that change the shape of the room, would you rather have it not as a big square room but …?
Rebecca: But you need to have it square so you can see everywhere. If it was ..
Ruth: … you don’t want hidden corners or …
Rebecca: If it was like a rectangle, well not a rectangle, but if you had a bit jutting off, then you wouldn’t be able to see. Because that’s one thing you have to have in a classroom, especially at this age (5-6) you have to be able to see where everything, everyone is.
Emma: What about you, Ruth?
Ruth: I don’t know, I can’t think of any major problems that I have with the actual layout of the room at the minute, but a square shape is probably best so you can see everywhere. But like, with the nursery, how they’ve got colour coded zones, so then it’s even clear to the children, you don’t need to do that pre-training, cos they know that green carpet corner …
Rebecca: Especially if it was throughout the school, if there was consistency.
Emma: So to some extent you’re training the children to use the rooms …
Ruth: So they have a bit more independence, it’s time, isn’t it.
Emma: How would you feel about them contributing to how the classroom would be?
Ruth: (pauses) I don’t know how many sensible suggestions you’d get.
Rebecca: yeah (pause). I mean, in hindsight you’d want to go down that route because it’s their learning environment so you’d want them to dictate in a way how … We do try with topic work we’re doing but, say, logistics, you wonder what would be appropriate out of it.
Emma: Is there one thing that you would do with schools in general if you could wave a magic wand and say, let’s make this better for teachers and pupils?
Ruth: Definitely, like with that nest thing over there (the new intervention building) where you can take a smaller group and be removed from the whole school, not necessarily in a separate building, but just a quieter separate space that isn’t interfered with and you …
Emma: Why do you say that?
Ruth: There are always times when you need to have a smaller group or you need to do something one to one or an assessment would be better but there are people walking down the corridor.
Emma: How does that affect you being able to do an assessment if you’re in a corridor?
Ruth: If you’re not interrupted. Well, the child’s concentration, for one, and then you get better results from them and, I don’t know, just your own concentration. If you keep breaking your own flow when you’re trying to get them to do something then that has an effect on them, I guess.
Rebecca: I don’t know about you in any of your (teaching) practices, but both of my practices were in open-plan classrooms and I hated it.
Ruth: I didn’t have that.
Rebecca: I found it really distracting I mean, in some ways it was good because you were really conscious of people in the other classes and you wouldn’t raise your voice and it trained the children. But I found it really distracting having people walking around and continuously people walking past and just stopping and so … I know some teachers like that but …
Emma: Which techniques did you use? I suppose you used your voice differently but did you try and block off areas?
Rebecca: Yes, I tried to block off areas. And the way I organised the tables. I was really, especially because I was on practice, I was more really conscious of myself, of just thinking that people could continuously hear me, are they thinking I’m saying the wrong thing? Or are the children doing the wrong thing, or are people walking past and thinking the children are badly behaved?
Ruth: So there was no physical divide at all?
Rebecca: No, so if you think, this whole wall (points to wall of her classroom that backs onto the corridor) was not there, like, in every classroom there was no wall.
Emma: How many classes were all in together?
Rebecca: In one school, it was based around the hall, so the hall would be in the middle and basically every classroom was off that. And then around the hall was a corridor and you’d walk around the corridor and there’d be classroom, classroom, classroom.
Ruth: So you could watch PE from your classroom?
Rebecca: No, there were doors to the hall. So there was the hall and there were doors into the hall, and this whole corridor was open, leading into all the classrooms.
Ruth: So they had three walls each?
Emma: And were there any little private spaces you could go to?
Rebecca: No. There were break-out rooms, break-out spaces, but they were in the corridor that circled around the hall that the corridors came off. That was one school. And then the other school was more like this in that the classrooms were off a corridor, but they had no walls. So you’d just walk down the corridor. So it wasn’t as bad, I wouldn’t be able to be as close to your classroom as the other school. I just felt it was … and again, they had tables, which were better because you weren’t completely … and the actually TAs would take the children so they were a bit out, but not completely removed.
Ruth: I can’t see the pros to that layout.
Rebecca: There are some people that like doing it but when I went to visit schools to look for a job, as soon as I found out they were open plan classrooms it really put me off. I know some classrooms are divided by sliding doors but … something I would say to people ‘Don’t design a classroom that is open!’
Emma: Do you think teachers need private spaces in a school?
Ruth: (long pause) What just for yourself or for ..?
Rebecca: In the classroom?
Emma: Either …
Rebecca: Oh, totally! There’s nowhere, apart from the staffroom, there’s never any space if you want to do some work and you think ‘I just want to get my head down for half an hour’.
Ruth: Especially as the computer room is all windows. Even if you’re working, someone walks past in the corridor and starts tapping and talking to you through the window.
Rebecca: I’ve been to some schools where they have some very small, like there’s two of them, they might have a table with two computers in it and so you can literally close the door and if you want to write reports or you want to mark or something like that. You can’t do that here, you’re in your classroom, you’re in the ICT suite, you’re in the staffroom, I mean you can go over to those things (small intervention block in the playground) but they’re a bit hot, I think, stuffy. I think that would be beneficial: as much as you need a learning environment.
Ruth: You know what I have seen that I do like, have you been to Hounslow Heath and seen their adobes, or whatever they’re called, their outside huts?
Rebecca: Yeah, there’s another school that’s got them.
Ruth: They’re like fibreglass igloos and they’re completely soundproof and Heathrow paid for them because they’re right in the flightpath.
Rebecca: That’s why Bedfont’s got one as well.
Ruth: Yeah, so they take intervention groups out there and so it’s like an outside space …
Rebecca: But isn’t it in the playground? Because I always thought, like, in terms of safety you’d have to have an adult in there monitoring what happens at playtime, because you’d have no clue.
Ruth: Would you?
Rebecca: You can’t see what’s happening inside it. It’s a nice idea for an outside …
Ruth: It’s got two doors …
Rebecca: Well … sometimes in the summer they have a spelling test or something like that and I say to Jackie (Rebecca’s teaching assistant) ‘Just take them outside’ and we’ve been very relaxed (Ruth chuckles) about our outside area, it’s something we need to focus on because that’s something when I came I really liked, the fact that for Year One we have a really big outside area but we don’t utilise it appropriately, we could have reading areas out there or construction areas, a bit more early years (pause) style.
Emma: What about trees? Do you think it’s important for schools to have trees?
Emma: Why do you think that?
Rebecca: I think because of that calming … but also you can bring the outside, your own outside environment into the curriculum. At my school that I had, we had a very small playground, we had to go and use a field at another school that we had to walk to. There was barely any outside space. So it’s really nice, when we did plants you can actually take the children all the way round the forest area, the gardening area …
Ruth: The foresty bit, the gardening area at the back, and they plant their own things … homegrown …
Emma: Is there anything that I haven’t mentioned in terms of the design that you think is very important? Because you’re real experts in a way, because you’ve done your teaching practices in different schools, you’re not that far into your teaching careers, so it’s very fresh in your memories.
Rebecca: I think I’d struggle to have a brand new classroom. My husband teaches at a secondary school which was brand new. And he’s a DT teacher and he was given a blank room and he was told ‘This is going to be your room’. And so he was like, for ages ‘So where do I have the computers? If I have the computers there, but that’s not actually going to work because I need to have tables, I need to have chairs here and they’re at this height. And he spent ages … and I don’t think I could do that, go into a brand new school with an empty classroom.
Ruth: And be completely responsible.
Rebecca: And be completely responsible, yeah, for how …unless you’d had loads of experience by looking at other ….
Ruth: Well I don’t think there’s anything wrong with getting it wrong and changing it.
Rebecca: No, no. But I don’t feel I have enough experience in other environments to understand what … I would love to go visit other classes just to look at their learning environments and whenever we go on courses and moderations you sit there and looking around and say ‘That’s a good …
Ruth: One of my placement schools was two storeys as well, and I found that really odd. That the juniors were upstairs.
Rebecca: One of my friends works at one of those. I’d really like that.
Ruth: I don’t know … it seemed more like a secondary school than a primary.
Rebecca: I suppose the other thing about, well not necessarily a learning environment but the design of the school is that it makes sense. Really, if you think about it, reception are over, right over there, and then you’ve got Year Two and then you’ve got Year One.
Ruth: It doesn’t really make sense. And also the Year One is around the corner and the Year Twos aren’t really next to each other …
Rebecca: … And then and Reception down there and you kind of think, wouldn’t it be better to go ‘Reception, Year One, Year Two …
Ruth: And when you try to explain it to a visitor, well, this classroom …
Rebecca: It doesn’t make any sense.
Emma: But would you have the power to … ?
Rebecca: No … I don’t know …
Emma: Probably it wouldn’t be a discussion that anybody would particularly think about having because you’re so busy.
Rebecca: Probably. You’re just making extra work for yourself. If you got told, if someone came to you and said ‘Right, you’re moving classroom. Year One are going to be in these three classrooms’, you’d just have to get on with it. But I don’t think anyone would ever go ‘Do you know what …?
Ruth: And people get a bit reluctant to move, as well, once they’ve done a classroom the way they want it.
Rebecca: Especially, like you say, it’s trial and error. Once you’ve tested it out …
Ruth: You’ve spent the year testing it out and you’ve got it how you want and …
Rebecca: Yes, that’s what happened before the nursery was built last year there were huts out there and two of the Year Two classrooms were out there and then nursery was inside and and the nursery got separated into two classrooms and so the Year Twos had to bring all of their stuff and design their classroom and they just had this sort of blank space. And I think budget is another thing, sometimes you’d love to think about how you could change …. ‘Oh, I’d love to have a big rug there and I’d love to have a different bookstand’. I’d love to have things like that.
Emma: Would you love those things?
Rebecca: I would love (pause) what I’ve seen is a really colourful rug that has squares and it has a 2-D shape in each square. And so children knew they had to sit in a square. And you can … ‘Anyone who’s sitting on a square’, you can bring in things like that.
Emma: And what about book displays? Would you like to change the way you store books?
Rebecca: Yes, it’s really messy today. That’s new, that bookstand. I used to have what’s in Ruth’s room.
Ruth: It’s like a hole and all the books are hidden. Which is a bit of a …
Rebecca: … and that’s better because it is face on, but …
Ruth: I think I need to make more of a feature of my book corner so it’s more of an event to go into and they look forward to more, as a treat you get to go into the book corner because you’ve got nice bean bags or it’s peaceful.
Rebecca: It makes me think because my niece is two and a half, and my sister brought these shelves, I’ve never heard of them before, they’re not very deep and I was like ‘Oh what’s the point of them?’, and she was like ‘Oh, you put the books on front facing and so she can actually see’. I’d not really thought about it before but if you think about it, when you have a book shelf everybody puts them like that (demonstrates books being put in with spine facing out) and so you have the spines and so at that age she can at books she knows by looking at the front cover and picking books she likes and so she picks it off.
Emma: Where did she find those?
Rebecca: She got them off the internet. But I’d never seen them before. And she has two of them, and so they’re at the right height for her and when she goes to bed she picks the right book by looking at the front cover. And I thought ‘what a great idea’, once I’d actually figured it out! So I do wonder, I mean, that’s better than the one you’ve got, but it’s too full and I wonder if I sorted it better. I’ve tried to, by topic … It’s just one shelf on the wall and then they’re just propped up. And my sister changes the books every couple of months. Good practice!
Emma: Is your sister a teacher?
Rebecca. No, my mum’s a teacher, but my sister’s a psychologist, so she’s probably researched it. ‘How to display books for children’, or something like that!
TA = teaching assistant