The aim of this post is to consider the value of small rooms in schools with the intention of starting a discussion about priorities for changes to the way in which these rooms are used. To this end, I introduce a diagram that suggests a hierarchy of essential qualities that might contribute to the effective use of such spaces.
The rooms in question, sometimes referred to as ‘small-group rooms’ are additional to classroom, circulation, assembly and dining spaces* and are generally used on an ad-hoc basis for specialised activities such as, but not limited to, learning support and therapies for individuals or small groups. Although these rooms can be found in the majority of schools (across the UK) the ways in which their use is designated and managed, as well as the specific uses of these spaces differ greatly. This is because they have been created and repurposed over time to respond to a diverse range of needs and organisational pressures. They are most often used for for individual sessions or for groups of no more than six students for English or maths; for counselling and therapies; as store cupboards (even when they are ‘luxuriously’ furnished with windows and doors); and as shelters for photocopiers, printers, musical instruments and computers. There is often a huge demand for these rooms, a demand that is unsurprising when you remember that it isn’t unusual for a year group in an English primary school, for example, to comprise of 90 or 120 children and that each year group may share one of these rooms with another year group of the same size and equally pressing need. Despite this demand, the timetabling and signage that designates their use can be chaotic.
To counter this lack of organisation, it may be helpful to explicitly recognise these rooms as amongst the most precious spaces in schools in terms of the benefit they offer to the students and staff who use them. Precious spaces because they offer a level of protection that is not usually available in other areas of the school, allowing students the valuable experience of feeling less exposed to the scrutiny of others when practising something new or when sharing difficult feelings. The word precious also reflects their scarcity and the high demand for these rooms can also make them feel precarious as users might be asked to move at short notice or relocate mid-session.
The qualities of these rooms can range from comfortable to uninhabitable and this is reflected in the diagram below. Some are small and windowless with little or no ventilation, making them unsafe during the current prevalence of Covid-19. In others, poor sound-proofing and a noisy location can distract and interrupt those working inside.
With this in mind, I propose this first iteration of a diagram about the qualities of these rooms and how these qualities might relate to each other. It is my hope that this will invite further discussion from architects and practitioners that may be directly helpful to schools in managing and improving these spaces to benefit staff and children alike.
The diagram might also be helpful in supporting the evaluation of rooms that are not currently being used for emotional or learning support but that could be made suitable to meet this high demand.
Today, more than ever, it is vital that architects and policy makers reflect on the school building as ‘an active agent, shaping the experience of schooling and promoting and even pioneering a particular understanding of education.’**
Researching the adaptations that staff working in schools currently make to these precious rooms for them to be habitable, meaningful and appropriate for use should feed into school design of the future, informing what is needed for our post-covid-19 way of working. As I write this, schools in the UK are open only to certain groups: children of key workers; those with special educational needs; and those who are vulnerable for other reasons, for example, looked-after children. The different and difficult ways in which school staff are now working (teaching online and simultaneously with children present in the classroom) is a huge challenge. But it may also give us an opportunity to reassess the value of these small rooms in schools, of how they’re currently used and and how they could be used in future.
I’ve written about therapeutic spaces in school here before and in recent months, those spaces have become an increasingly important aspect of school life due to an increased need for emotional and mental health provision in school. Similarly, rooms used to support maths and English for children who have missed education will become more even more in demand post-pandemic as we become increasingly aware of the legacy and inequities of remote learning. In recognising that most spaces beyond the classroom are both precious and precarious in their use, I am increasingly aware that behaviours and management of time, access and space connected with these rooms need to be recognised alongside the ambient qualities of light, temperature and air. By acknowledging the demand for and the purpose and value of these small but precious rooms, as well as their shortcomings, it is hoped that they can be used more effectively.
This diagram uses a pyramid structure, after Maslow*** to suggest that there may be a hierarchical relationship between factors that make rooms safe and valuable spaces for individual and group activities. The safety and the health of users is crucial and the factors associated with the physical health and usability of the rooms is found at the base of the pyramid. An understanding of the ventilation of rooms has become increasingly more pressing in schools as we learn more about the airborne transition of Covid-19 as a respiratory disease; this is why it forms the base of the pyramid. Light and a temperature within a comfortable range also sits close by.
The diagram features factors that are physical and those that are the result of behaviours. Implicit in the diagram is the idea that behaviours affecting the space are dependent on the space’s physical qualities, however it is acknowledged by the broken line separating these domains that this is a very fluid relationship and creative changes in either domain may affect the other.
As we move up the pyramid, social factors become increasingly important. The room needs to be timetabled equitably and, if possible, dedicated to a single activity for set periods of time so that interruptions don’t occur. These interruptions can defeat a therapy or a teaching experience. Loud noises outside rooms and ease and privacy of access are also considerations: if a student has to walk past a class to get to a therapy session, might that may also inhibit their willingness to participate: self-consciousness can cause an interruption to learning as well as to well-being.
The apex of the pyramid can only be reached when a level of care and thoughtfulness about all spaces across the school are attended to and planned. Who has responsibility for the management of these rooms that can be so important for students’ learning and well-being? Only when these rooms are valued and their use is negotiated and planned for, can they be well-used.
It may be helpful for schools to bring together a small team of staff and students to audit/evaluate these rooms across the school. This team should include students and staff who use the room and as well as those who have access to resources to improve them if necessary.
*Other types of rooms that I have not included in this discussion are specialist rooms for SEN or social learning, such as nurture and sensory spaces. Office space could also be included in an audit of these rooms.
** Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, usually displayed in the form of a pyramid, where the most basic human needs for the base inspired this diagram.
*** Burke, C. & Grosvenor, I., (2008). School. London: Reaktion Books (p. 10). Catherine Burke and Ian Grosvenor’s short history of school design is highly recommended as an explanation of how and why ‘schools are at one and the same time cherished and overlooked as emblems of civil life, as markers of progress, and as statements of hope for the future’ (p. 189).