Good school buildings are no indulgence - they really matter
Antonia Berry explains how learning has been transformed by a visionary renovation and extension project
I recall sitting at the back of my maths classroom, a typical angst-ridden teenager, etching some tortured declaration of love into the chipped wooden desk. I remember swinging on my cracked plastic tub chair paying little heed to Mr Needson’s trigonometry demonstration on the grubby whiteboard.
The room is like all the others in the school – fit for purpose (just). It can house thirty or so desks. The décor is tired but passable. A couple of ceiling tiles have slipped out of place. A collection of posters displaying “motivational” quotes about the value of hard work are stuck to the walls with Blu Tack. At other points in the room, evidence of posters removed can be seen where the paint is stripped away to plaster in Blu Tack shaped splodges.
Windows, stiff with age, are wedged open a crack where possible. The room is stuffy and hot and I am struggling to think of anything other than dreamy Richard Patterson in the year above me.
"The maintenance of buildings can be a millstone around the board of governors’ neck."
A couple of decades on and I am depute rector of St Columba’s School, one of the highest achieving schools in Scotland, watching from the front row the impact that a well-designed, well maintained teaching space has on the concentration, behaviour and learning of young people and wondering why some headteachers and LEAs of years gone by have failed to recognise this.
In the independent sector particularly, the maintenance of school buildings, many often listed, can be a millstone around the board of governors’ neck, a black hole into which money is sunk with few visible benefits to pupils. Committing to spending millions on the purchase and renovation of new buildings can be an even more daunting business: a tough sell to the parents on whom a capital levy will inevitably have to be placed; a challenging negotiation with local residents and neighbours; a long and time-consuming planning process.
For many schools, significant investment in buildings and classroom design is a risk that is simply not worth taking, but for those who have the vision and the courage to commit to making that vision a reality, the reward for pupils and teachers can be immeasurable.
"Spending millions on the purchase and renovation of new buildings can be a daunting business."
St Columba’s opened its state-of-the-art teaching facility, The Girdwood Building, in late 2016. Since then we have been teaching and learning in the thirteen new classrooms, offering tailored pastoral care in the guidance suite, and plenty of quiet reflective reading and study has taken place in the new library.
The school long ago purchased two detached Victorian houses that sat adjacent to the school grounds, Kilmorack and Cromdale (one slightly worse for wear), and employed Page\Park Architects in Glasgow to design a new school building that would fit seamlessly into the school campus and the beautiful stone-built village of Kilmacolm.
Externally the end result, completed by Burnett Bell Architects, is exquisite: Kilmorack and Cromdale have been preserved and restored, painted in brilliant white. The two buildings, mirrored almost exactly, are connected by sandy coloured open brickwork and walls of glass. To the rear of each villa a collection of classrooms projects backwards, housed in the same glass and exposed brickwork exterior. From above, the shape is one of a giant angular horseshoe, softened by the green roof on the single storey new build which has a sedum covering incorporating five types of moss.
"Pupils say the new buildings have improved focus and given them space to breathe."
Inside, the overwhelming effect is one of space and light. Each classroom has a “teaching wall”, in which speakers are recessed, cabling hidden and all the pupils’ books and teachers’ marking shut away. Each classroom has a CO2 monitoring unit that informs the teacher of the air quality throughout the lesson. Ventilation can be controlled by opening the high clerestory windows through motorised openers operated at ground level. The teacher can control the light in the room through a versatile black-out blind system and dimmer switches, fitted as standard. In the Library, entirely open planned with no doors, an acoustic ceiling reflects an acoustic floor covering. Hardwearing, high-end furniture has been selected in a soft-toned colour palette to match the soft furnishings in the rest of the building.
Pupils say the new buildings have “improved focus” and given them space to breathe. They say they can concentrate better.
In terms of academic achievement, it is difficult to establish a causal link between exam results and the effect of our new building; perhaps the fact that English and languages were two of the highest achieving faculties this year is just coincidence. Or perhaps, just perhaps, the quality of the teaching and learning experience has been directly influenced by the quality of this extraordinary building design.
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