One of the aims of this website is to open up a discussion about the ways in which school design can improve the experiences of children and young people. Powerful memories of school buildings and playgrounds have emerged from many of our interviews with a vividness that often even surprises the interviewee. Particularly striking examples are of a flaming red Poinsettia tree in Suzi Hall’s school, Ji Yu’s tree-trunk retreat where junk food could be secretly consumed and Catherine Burke’s memories of a little camp-bed, a safe space in her first school. These are typical of remembered places that offered contentment or solace to our interviewees as children in environments that they remember as generally less than welcoming or pleasant.
An aspect of school design that I haven’t yet explored deeply enough in conversations with architects and education professionals, however, is how school policies, pedagogies and curricula actively shape the design of the classroom and beyond. My doctoral research about spaces in primary schools for reading (in England) highlighted just how much the English national curriculum with its emphasis on targets and assessment influenced the ways in which teachers were able (or not) to arrange the spaces in which they worked every day.
Here’s an example. In a primary school in the west of London, I met a teacher who was thoroughly dissatisfied with the layout of her classroom. She was in her second year of teaching the same class of children in the same classroom that she had taught in the previous year. During their first year together, when the children were four and five years old, expectations were that children should already be learning to read and understand simple sentences but they were not yet to be formally assessed through examination. The school’s policies encouraged the teacher to create a book corner full of books, soft toys and cushions: a welcoming and cosy location in their classroom. In a second corner of the classroom was a role-play area and children were also free to explore this space during the day.
However, the following year when the class moved up to Year One, where the formal demands of the national curriculum and assessment policies kicked in, arrangements for reading and writing in the classroom had to be altered by the teacher. Children were now grouped at one of five allocated tables according to how proficiently they could read, write and perform maths activities, i.e. they were ‘streamed’ by their perceived abilities. This arrangement supported the intention that during the daily (guided) reading lesson, the teacher could teach and assess a group of six of the class of thirty children, to be sure that they were on track to pass their statutory national reading tests in the summer term. But this arrangement of large grouped tables also meant that the role-play area and book corners were squeezed out of the small classroom and that children no longer had immediate access to books simply for the pleasure of enjoying them or to a space for imaginative play. As the teacher explained, “once the tables came in here, it suddenly felt really cramped.”
In this example, the demands of the formal curriculum had a direct impact on the arrangement of the spaces and furniture in the classroom, which in turn created a different kind of pedagogy, where children could no longer freely pick up or choose a book without having to be accompanied by an adult to an area outside the classroom where books were stored.
As I continued to research reading spaces in other schools, I found a similar change in design emphasis between the Reception and Year One classrooms to be commonplace. In all nine of the Year One classes I spent time with, every five and six year old child had also been ‘streamed by ability’ and worked at designated tables. I observed that children spent the majority of the time in their classrooms either sitting on the floor in rows or at these tables and concluded that national policies for education were undoubtedly having an effect upon the way in which individual teachers arranged their learning spaces.
There is a separate, ongoing discussion about the efficacy and ethics of streaming children ‘by ability’ at the age of five, prompted by the Department for Education in England proposing to begin testing children formally when they begin Reception rather than at the end of Year One*. Will this result in a similar loss of spaces for exploring, reading and playing in the early years of school in England?
Teachers design and redesign their classrooms to meet the needs of their practice and these structures can also be seen to affect the design of school buildings themselves. In England, for example, the role of the architect in school building has been sidelined by new methods of school procurement that minimize adaptations in design for specific schools and maximize use of baseline, template designs, i.e. “a suite of standardised drawings and specifications which could be applied across a wide range of educational facilities”**. This appears logical if it is accepted that the use of the designed spaces throughout their useful lifespan will be in line with the current pedagogical priorities. However just as pedagogical emphasis and practice change between Reception and Year One, education policy as a whole in England has also been significantly changed and adapted over time.
I wonder if architects were encouraged to invest in a deeper understanding of how learning takes place in school buildings and how the curriculum and pedagogies are shaping those spaces, whether they might find a way to regain their influence in school design and imagine ways to improve the experience of schools for teachers, children and young people?
While I’m not advocating that architectural students and architects need to become experts in how and where children learn, I do believe that developing a body of knowledge about how curricula and pedagogies impact upon the everyday experience of children in learning environments would be a valuable resource for architects and educators alike. It would be my hope that making use of such a body of knowledge, architects of schools may also be better placed to develop learning environments which offer new opportunities for contentment and solace, akin to those that have been so memorable to the individuals I’ve interviewed. And that teachers will be able to ask for help in maintaining areas of their classroom that are valuable to them, despite the spatial pressures of formal learning and assessment.
I’m very aware that this piece of writing is solely focussed on the English education system but this is just one example. My real interest lies in how the relationship between curricula/pedagogies and space plays out in education systems internationally. If you have any insights into how pedagogies and curriculum policies have shaped spaces in schools, please do share them here or contact me with your thoughts.
*See organisations such as More than a score, Rescue our schools and campaigners such as Michael Rosen on twitter. And here’s the DfE’s response to consultation about primary assessment in England, updated on 11 April 2018.