How contemporary design is enhancing school life

Gone are the days when pupils spent much of their day sat quietly in rows, copying words off a whiteboard

May 06, 2019

As more schools prioritise wellbeing and encourage more interaction both between pupils and with staff, classroom design is increasingly coming into focus.

“Whether its acoustics, air quality, light, furniture shape, colour or even locker location, there are a whole host of areas schools can modify in the drive to create a positive learning environment,” says Helen Gough, Head of Project & Development Services, JLL. “Needs have changed and there’s more respect for a wider range of learning methods.”

Flexibility is a major theme with the need to move away from the “old raised plinth approach” to allow for more collaboration.

Instead, flower petal shaped seating arrangements are proving popular to better engage pupils and encourage collaboration.

“Teaching styles are changing and the need for eye contact means new, flexible seating arrangements are now becoming more prevalent,” says Gough. “Also, independent and project work require different layouts so furniture needs to be easy to reconfigure between lessons.”

The school as a workplace

Good design is not just about having a positive impact on pupil behaviour or concentration levels; schools need to be an inspiring place to work for teachers.

“Schools are competing for talent in much the same way every employer is,” Gough says. “Providing a great environment within which to teach, and mark homework is as important as ever.”

For older schools with heritage to preserve, it’s about bringing a fresh touch to existing features such as oak wall-panelling and dark corridors.

“There’s no reason why schools cannot successfully blend their heritage with more modern furnishings and fittings,” says Gough, pointing to the way London’s Dulwich College used colours to differentiate its three core wings.

“Artwork can be used to create strong classroom and faculty identity for subjects like History, English, Geography and Modern Languages,” says Gough. “Schools are increasingly appreciating the positive impact that creative visuals can have.”

Yet there is a fine line between inspiration and distraction. “You want schools to be fun, stimulating places to be and for children to want to come to school and feel excited,” Gough says. “But they also need to be able to concentrate so the use of colour and visuals in classrooms may be more subdued than in common areas.”

Beyond the classroom

Areas like stairwells and locker rooms can also benefit from thoughtful design.

Simon Tupper, director at IID Architects, says the two areas are often stress points for bad behaviour and overcrowding. A decentralised approach to the latter can mean less overcrowding.

“So many schools have their lockers in one area, but by being polycentric, the ‘heat’ can be taken out of dozens of children all trying to do the same thing at the same time,” he says.

Stairs located in the corners of the buildings – often historically placed there for fire and safety reason can mean ‘dark’ unsupervised corners and congestion between classes.

During the redevelopment of London Oratory in 2015, stairs were relocated to central areas; Chessington Community College also used a similar strategy. Tupper says central staircases not only improve flow for pupils, but also provide visual stimulation.

“The effect for those sitting in a central atrium is similar to the experience one would get sitting in a café window and watching the world go by,” he says. “It’s about using movement to make the school feel more open and in line with the outside world.”

Moving on from the classroom

There’s also a big difference between creating stimulating environments for teenagers approaching their GCSEs and A-Levels and younger children.

New thinking around how to design top class learning environments at universities has been trickling down to secondary schools in recent years, Tupper says.

“Competition for students over the past decade has seen major modernisation to many of the UK’s top universities,” he says. “That change of approach has meant that schools and sixth form colleges have been playing catch-up as they look to incorporate similar social and study areas to help bridge the gap.”

It means treating pupils more like young adults with more autonomy over how and where they study – an approach which Gough says is also vital for those going straight into the workplace.

“Offices are getting increasingly collaborative,” she says. “The skills needed at work, such as the ability to work as part of team and have greater dialogue with colleagues, need to be refined in the school.”

The school of the future

While technology is already facilitating many lessons through smart devices, interactive screens and video conferencing, its use within the classroom and wider school environment is set to increase.

With major tech firms such as Apple and Microsoft being urged by government to work more with UK schools, apps could soon be more widely used.

That could not only cut admin and reshape teacher planning as well as track pupil attainment, but the classroom itself would need further design changes, such as more charging points for devices, says Gough.

How technology is incorporated can determine how much a school can maximise its benefits,” she says. “The coming years will be a time of great change for schools as technology advances – and they will need to learn and adapt.”

As they do, the right design will make a real difference in creating a stimulating learning environment for both pupils and staff.