Many of our school buildings were built in a different era for very different needs. Are they still fit for purpose? Do our school buildings limit our students’ potential? And is there something we can do about it?
Over the last few years we’ve witnessed change occur at an often dizzying pace and the landscape 10-15 years ago looks and feels completely different to the one we occupy now. During that time much has changed: an endless line of Education Secretaries have come and (mercifully) gone; the way that we assess both our learners and our schools has changed irrevocably; perhaps most critically, the needs of the young people we serve have changed beyond recognition.
The change to the physical landscape over the last couple of decades has been equally dramatic. The ‘Building Schools for the Future’ programme instigated by Tony Blair’s New Labour government around the turn of the new millennium swept away many of the dilapidated buildings that had been left to decay and degrade for far too long. In their place, a new generation of modern, aspirational facilities emerged up and down the country, transforming the educational experience of millions of children – particularly in some of our most disadvantaged communities.
The change within the independent sector has been no less profound. Years marked by recession, austerity, pandemic and economic self harm have widened the gap between the average family income and the rising cost of private school fees. Those schools that have been able to stay afloat in this shrinking market have been forced to direct any funds that they can muster towards improving facilities, in the hope of differentiating themselves from the growing competition in both the state and the independent sectors. It’s an increasingly harsh environment and, as the effects of Brexit, Covid and the cost of living crisis kick in, it’s only likely to get tougher.
The one thing that has remained largely constant during these years of change has been my own attitude and values. I’ve always looked upon our school buildings as vessels, rather than living organisms; my belief has always been that it is the people who make a school, rather than the structure that houses them.
As I have encountered an increasingly diverse range of schools over my years in education, that belief seemed to solidify. I’ve visited schools where the walls are literally crumbling but the moral foundations and values that underpin them are rock solid. Similarly, I’ve been to schools where the facilities are pristine but, if you dig beneath the superficial, the substance behind those walls is somewhat lacking.
However, just as our experiences over successive lockdowns have prompted us to reflect over philosophical issues such as policies, aims and values, it has also given us time to pause for thought and consider altogether more concrete issues.
As the author of The Caring Teacher, my outlook has always been (understandably) people-focused. My attention, in both academic and pastoral leadership roles, has always been directed unashamedly towards shaping policies and promoting cultures that provide students, families and teachers with the most positive educational experiences possible.
But what happens when our educational aims are hindered by the very spaces that we occupy? Where do we turn when the warm, inclusive, communal spirit that we are eager to engender is being blocked by the physical geography of our buildings? What do we do when our progressive pedagogical aspirations are being diverted by environments designed to suit the needs of a different era?
People will always be the most valued commodities within our schools but it’s becoming increasingly evident that the spaces that those people occupy really matter too.
As a senior pastoral leader, I’ve witnessed firsthand as the challenges facing our young people have grown and mutated. Given the pace of these changes, it’s understandable that our schools haven’t managed to evolve physically at the same rate. We may wish to provide welcoming, communal environments but these aspirations can quickly be strangled by narrow corridors and awkward spaces. And our ability to ensure that the needs of all our students are recognised and met can be obscured when those responsible for their welfare are hidden and buried in inaccessible spaces.
More recently, having pivoted back into an academic leadership role, I’ve watched as we’ve adapted to the transition to online learning and back again without necessarily figuring out what our ‘new normal’ should look and feel like. Our children did an incredible job of adapting to independent learning, taking full advantage of the technology now available to them, but now find themselves back in classrooms where there aren’t even accessible plug points to charge their laptops. It’s becoming apparent that too many of our analog classrooms are struggling to cope with an increasingly digital world.
The disconnect between people and spaces is particularly stark in many of our more traditional independent schools. Parents may still be wooed by intangibles such as ‘character’ and ‘charm’ and may even coo appreciatively about how it’s ‘just like Hogwarts’ as they’re carefully toured around the facilities, but in a shrinking market they’re also becoming more discerning. No amount of ‘charm’ can compensate for dark and tired communal spaces and awkward and uninspiring classrooms.
Disappointingly, the failure to make the most of our spaces can often be just as evident in some of our new schools. Over recent years I’ve been wowed by the sweeping atriums and lofty horizons that have become de rigueur in many new-builds. Too often though, what could be bustling communal areas or inspiring study spaces are being poorly utilised, lack the necessary fittings and finishes and end up being soulless, cavernous expanses or bloated and barren corridors.
Whether new or old, many schools aren’t utilising their buildings in a manner that befits the 21st century and meets the needs of their learners.
So where will the change come from? Today’s school leaders are expected to play increasingly auxiliary roles: part educationalist, social worker, diplomat and CEO to name just a few. Expecting our headteachers to somehow become experts in interior design, network solutions, acoustics and soft furnishings might be asking a little too much!
Similarly, many of those organisations called upon to build and modernise our facilities may have decades of expertise in construction but they’re likely to lack the understanding of pedagogy and the unique rhythm of education needed to transform steel, glass and concrete into a living, breathing school.
Somehow we need to discover that middle ground.
Little over two years ago, few of us had given any deep consideration to remote learning; little over a decade ago, evidence-based practice was the preserve of a dedicated few rather than an intrinsic part of a teacher’s DNA. The world of education has spun on its axis and is unlikely to turn back.
Despite these seismic shifts, I remain convinced that people – not bricks and mortar – are what make or break a school. But in an ever-changing world, it’s becoming increasingly important for our buildings to elevate, rather than limit, the people who occupy them.