Designing the ‘in-between’: Alison Clark’s micro-history of a welfare room

“School design, which is finely tuned to the full range of activities and needs of adults and children who inhabit these spaces, should pay attention to the teaching and non-teaching environments. These non-teaching spaces can be seen to be ‘in-between’, neither classroom nor playground and, as such, may be part of the hidden face of the school.”

 

These words by Alison Clark come from her “micro-study of a welfare room” (2010a) set in a English primary school that was designed by Mary and David Medd in 1949. The study draws upon her conversations with Judy, a welfare assistant who provided emotional and physical care for children in this room between 1977 and 1993. Clark creates a vivid picture of Judy’s work and of her room and its routines. Carefully chosen objects, such as a hot water bottle, a cuddly toy and a Winnie the Pooh pillow case, along with a bed and a chair in which children could sit and be listened to, promote an “unhurried environment” which was also reflected in the architectural design of the room with its large low window along one side looking out across the playground onto a nearby wood. Clark brings this lost room to life, uncovering “a hidden face of the school”; a space in which compassion, listening to children, creativity, craft and a slower pace of life are valued above attainment targets.

 

SpringsPoohFlowerGardenScenie_4656
“The bed had a blanket and a Winnie the Pooh pillow case” Clark 2010 p. 773.

This was a space in which all kinds of negotiations between the formal and informal life of the school took place. The in-betweeness of the room was also enacted in the deliberate ambiguities of the roles that were played out in the room: with pupils taking on the role of  apprentices and doing “real jobs” in crafting and preparing resources for display boards; by children who were not feeling “one hundred per cent” but neither well nor ill; and through the welfare assistant herself, who was a member of staff but not a teacher and who offered care, comfort and a creative outlet that offset the formal demands of the school routines and rules. Clark’s appreciation of the deep connection between the designed space (the welfare room) and the role developed by Judy is beautifully drawn.

 

As Clark’s study suggests, the role of those who care for the physical and emotional needs of children in school beyond the teaching staff is inextricably linked with a space in which such care can be given. Reflecting on her study nearly a decade after it was written, Clark notes that “it was a combination of place, person, practices and things, so having a space was important but in combination with these other factors.”*

 

The work of supporting children emotionally and physically becomes more challenging when staff are fully stretched. However, even in circumstances when school budgets only allow for the employment of class teachers and a skeleton staff of premises manager, school secretary/business manager and senior management, ‘in-between’ and informal spaces should still be part of the architectural design of a school. Then, if funding becomes available to employ staff to specifically support children’s emotional and physical welfare, there will be suitable, designed spaces in which this care can be offered. On the other hand, if new schools are designed to be as economical with space as possible, the valuable work of providing this support for children while they are at school will be much harder to achieve.

 

Newman, Woodcock and Dunham also make this argument in an article for the journal Built Environment (2007), suggesting that that a dedicated welfare or nurture room should be designed into every new primary school. They contend that such a space should be regarded by school designers as vital rather than as a “desirable but unnecessary addition” (p. 439).  And although welfare assistants are no longer commonly employed in state primary schools in England, where Clark’s study took place, professional counsellors for children in schools have become increasingly available. A private, safe, comfortable space where children can be listened to, away from the routines and rules of the school, is essential in this instance.

 

Clark is probably best known to architects, educators and researchers for The mosaic approach (Clark, 2005; Clark 2010b Clark, Kjørholt, & Moss, 2005), a framework that also promotes values of creativity, careful listening and attention to detail. Although Clark’s micro-study of the modest welfare room is undoubtedly less well-known than her framework, it also suggests a potentially significant way forward in promoting child-centred, compassionate values through school design and highlights the importance of spaces beyond the classroom.

 

The architect and architectural historian Peter Blundell Jones (2014) suggests that even though spatial settings may appear to be neutral because we easily become habituated to them in school buildings, we should take “an imaginative leap to envisage how it might be otherwise.” In this micro-study of one welfare room, Clark makes this leap to bring a forgotten space alive, reminding us that ‘in-between’, unnoticed and undervalued spaces in schools could be revived or recreated to ensure that children’s physical and emotional well-being in schools is supported through design.

 

References

 

Blundell Jones, P. (2014). The development of the school building and the articulation of territory. In P. Woolner (Ed.), School design together (pp. 11-31). Abingdon: Routledge.

Clark, A. (2005). Listening to and involving young childen: a review of research and practice. Early Childhood Development and Care, 175(6), 489-505.

Clark, A. (2010a). In-between spaces in postwar primary schools: a micro-study of a ‘welfare room’ (1977-1993). History of Education: Journal of the History of Education Society, 39(6), pp. 767-778.

Clark, A. (2010b). Transforming children’s spaces: children’s and adults’ participation in designing learning environments. London: Routledge.

Clark, A., Kjørholt, A.T., & Moss, P. (2005). Beyond listening: future prospects. In A. Clark, A.T. Kjørholt, & P. Moss (Eds.), Beyond listening. Children’s perspectives on early childhood services (pp. 175-188). Bristol: Policy Press.

Newman, M., Woodcock, A. & Dunham, P. (2007). ‘We change lives in here’: environments for ‘nurturing’ in UK primary schools. Built Environment 33(4), 430-440.

*personal email from Alison Clark on 2nd May 2018

 

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