I returned home from the Education Estates* conference in Manchester earlier this week with one question lodged firmly in my head: why are people so fixated on area in schools and not on cost?
The question was asked at the very end of the conference in the final session just as the conference organisers began to shoo us out of the hall so they could shut up shop. I didn’t know the person who asked the question and they didn’t give their name so I hope I am not doing them a disservice by adding that their tone of voice made it clear that the question was a rhetorical one; an expression of frustration with those who are obsessed with classroom and school size by an industry (construction) that is struggling to make a profit from the schools sector.
The question made me think carefully about why I seem to have become fixated by the area of classrooms and schools in my own research over the past year. I raise it here and offer my own thoughts in the hope that others will comment with their own reasons for believing that it does or does not matter.
Before my doctoral research began, I was a specialist reading teacher in an East London primary school. A professional observation that I made while I held that position was that while children who read confidently and for enjoyment can happily read anywhere in a school or a classroom and take up very little space when they are reading, children who struggle to learn to read take up far more floor space until they catch up with their peers.
One reason for this could be that children who are learning to read need to practise reading aloud in order to improve. And reading out loud can be noisy for others who are trying to concentrate or listen to a teacher talking. Reading aloud also requires at least one other participant to support the child so they can progress – this might be a teacher, a teaching assistant, a parent or another child – but whoever they are they will at least double the space required for reading. And if either or both parties require a chair or desk, you can double that area again.
The current recommended size of a primary classroom is 55 square metres. If you put a desk and chair for each of the 30 children likely to be in the class and add one for the teacher, the space inside the classroom begins to feel a little constricted. Then add coats, bags the staff and their resources, a carpet space, equipment, trays for storage and finding a quiet place for practising reading inside the classroom is going to be a fairly tall order. Not to mention a child who might need special equipment like a wheelchair or one who needs a place where they can go to calm down if they need to.
And if the overall area of the school is reduced, not just the classroom area, then will there be resource rooms and quiet nooks in the school where a child can practise reading? Classroom book corners are already likely to be a casualty of the current government’s guidance for classroom area in new schools, yet alone for school libraries and reading places outside the classroom.
As a teacher, I had never even heard of a Building Bulletin and had no idea that the floor space of new school buildings was being reduced from previous standards to cut costs. I didn’t know that the client for most new school buildings in England was the Education Funding Agency rather than the schools themselves, nor that consultation with the school staff and with architects was being sidelined, also to save costs. What I did know, as a teacher, was how individual children found certain places inside the school comfortable to learn in and how they found other places more difficult. Many of them felt embarrassed to be overheard by staff or other children when reading aloud and were highly conscious that they were not yet proficient readers, even at the early age of 5 or 6. As a teacher, I also knew that learning to read isn’t simply about decoding and systematic synthetic phonics, it’s also about confidence and self-esteem and enjoyment. I also knew that if children were left behind with reading by the age of six or seven, the cost of them catching up with their peers would become increasingly steep. Teaching in a borough where many children didn’t have their own books at home and didn’t have anyone to practise reading with at home taught me a great deal about the importance of school design in areas of disadvantage and about the ultimate cost of not giving children every chance possible to learn to read and enjoy reading at school.
That’s why I have become fixated on floor space and why I would question whether the saving on 5-10 square metres or so per classroom in a new school will prove to be a saving in the long term. Primary classrooms, in my experience, serve a huge range of functions each day and while reading practice might take up more room, perhaps there are other areas of the curriculum that are less dependent on a decent amount of floor and breathing space? Please comment with your own examples or point of view.
One of the presenters at that final Education Estates conference session was Mairi Johnson, formerly deputy director for design at the Education Funding Agency, providing strategic direction to the Priority School Building Programme. Her presentation touched on the need for social responsibility in the provision of schools in less affluent areas. I found her presentation very engaging and whilst looking up her biography online, I stumbled across an interview she gave to Building magazine on 5th September 2014 that I’d encourage anyone who is interested in this area to look up, in which she said:
My big regret of that period is that we took the area down as much as we did. It’s taken flexibility out of the design. Even though every curriculum subject can be taught safely, the circulation is tight, and if the school has any other thing it needs to do, or just a quirk of the building that needs a bit more space to be dealt with, it’s really difficult.
She also reveals that the reduction in floor space/area came about under rather strange circumstances:
We had Building Bulletins [the previous standards for schools], and my colleagues and I were doing a testing exercise to say ‘what if you set everything at the minimum, what does that give you as an area?’ And that got snatched off the desk and implemented, without any real testing of it. I really wish that piece of paper didn’t exist. I wish we’d done a different calculation that got snatched’.
*Education Estates is a conference forum for those involved in the construction and design and fittings of education buildings including schools and universities.