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Why we must insist on well-designed classrooms

School. What do you remember about yours? Echoing hallways, metro tiles in the bathrooms, colourful murals or hopscotch on the flagstones of the yard? Perhaps wooden desks with grooves for pencils and holes for inkwells, arched windows, blinking strip lights and parquet floors. Many of these tiny details provided the settings for the formative years of today’s adults. Do you ever ponder whether those colourful murals contributed to your career choice, or if the blinking strip lights might explain why you never liked maths? Perhaps those echoing halls were daunting and intimidating, and set you on the pathway to a real dislike of school. Or then again, maybe gazing through those arched windows inspired your biggest ideas.


For those of us designing and building the schools of tomorrow, our mission is always to do infinitely more than comply with government regulations and stick to tight budgets. In creating their learning environments, we are overseeing thousands of details that will stay with children as they grow, helping to ensure they reach their full potential – and that teachers are supported in helping them.


Round Table discussion at Space Zero

Children deserve spaces designed with them – and their educators – in mind, found participants at a recent roundtable event held in Manchester.  Space Zero brought together a panel of industry leaders to kick off the 2018 Education Estates conference for a unique conversation about the issues facing education space creators today.


The team met – or beamed in from afar – at Space Zero HQ, to discuss whether our young people are being given the learning environments they deserve. Chaired by Dr Sharon Wright of The Learning Crowd, the discussion saw Wayne Taylor and Dave Judge of Space Zero joined by Robert Hopkins of AHR, Caroline Mayes of Stride Treglown,  Mark Hargreaves from DLA, Robert Paterson from Turner & Townsend,  Andrew Brookes from Willmott Dixon, and Helen Kavanagh, Simon Ruscoe-Price and Coco Li from Wellington College China (via video link from Shanghai).


Round Table discussion at Space Zero

So what are we doing right? And what barriers stand in our way?


Happy, achieving children are more likely to be found in spaces designed for human beings, found the panel – and that means windows. Lots and lots of windows. As animals, we like to be aware of the outside world, in much the same respect, in fact, as tigers. And yet, the panel asked, since it’s no longer acceptable to keep tigers in airless concrete boxes, why does the Government’s Facilities Output Specification (FOS) deem it acceptable for children? We must move away from ‘this is a classroom, it is shaped like a cube and there are 50 of them’, agreed the panel. Variety in space is achievable and not significantly more expensive than uniformity – simply removing walls can create instant flexibility.


In the same vein, children (and tigers) need outdoor space. Funding cuts have seen a tragic shrinkage of school yards and playing fields, and yet children inarguably benefit from proximity to nature, both socially and educationally. The panel concurred – we can’t underestimate the importance of the great outdoors.


New College Doncaster Library Seating Area

New College Doncaster, designed by Space Zero

Defying the norm


Innovation in British school design is hindered by a large comfort zone around ‘the norm’. The variety and joy we find in the spaces of our own daily lives – the atmosphere of a cafe, the pleasant sight of greenery, the contrasting experiences of private and communal areas – are sidelined in UK school design as the pressures of time, budget and restricted thinking ensure new education spaces don’t break the mould.


Yet pupils and students should be offered an environment that reflects the adult world they will grow into, and schools should include the type of spaces we as adults make use of – spaces that are emotionally evocative without compromising on functionality.


Preston College iStem Centre, designed by Space Zero

So how do we achieve this on a project that gives us only six weeks to design a school? When deadlines are tight and budgets low, contractors and architects are driven to deliver a ‘kit of parts’, at the cost of both creativity and longevity.  The speed of the Department of Education’s procurement process leaves little room for new ideas; the panel agreed that a more unified approach between local authorities and the Department might lead to more interesting initiatives, as seen in Scotland and Wales.


So what next?


The public sector has to look beyond the next few years and plan buildings for the decades ahead, building in the agility and adaptability to cope with rapid developments in technology and pedagogy.


In summary, we all – contractors, consultants, architects, local authority and government – have a responsibility to improve learning.


Gateacre School, designed by Space Zero

As a result of the round table discussion, and following the 2018 Education Estates conference, Space Zero CEO Wayne Taylor penned an open letter to the UK government, offering to put words into action with a design for ‘the ideal classroom’: a blueprint for education spaces of the future. Offering the service free of charge, he wrote to the Department for Education.


Open letter to the Department for Education.


“Following your keynote at this October’s Education Estate Conference we spoke in brief. During our conversation I offered, as part of my personal altruistic desire to contribute to ‘improving learning outcomes’ through the design of experiential and sensorial learning environments, to design the interiors and FF&E for the ‘ideal school’, understanding that may be both primary and secondary environments.”


“To briefly put our capability in context, we have delivered close to 400 schools, colleges, and universities across ten countries, proudly exporting our unique British innovation.”


Wayne Taylor, CEO, Space Zero


At Space Zero, we are so passionate about the prospect of seeing children thrive in the right space, that we’ll never stop working on the ideal learning environment. We’re proud to have developed a network of design, construction and procurement professionals who feel the same way – and we hope the government wants to work with us to put ideas – and ideals – into practice.




Insight    Wed Dec 18

Written by: Space Zero

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