Inspiring spaces and why they matter

Stephen Burley, headmaster at King’s High School, Warwick, examines the opportunities we have to rethink school spaces and reimagine the classroom in a world beyond bubbles

Let’s rewind a couple of years to the start of the academic year in September 2019. For King’s High Warwick, this was a moment of particular significance: after 140 years at our town centre site on Smith Street, we were moving into our new £45m purpose-built, state-of-the-art school on our green and spacious Foundation campus alongside Warwick Preparatory School, Warwick Junior School and Warwick School.

Anyone who has been involved in a school move will appreciate the scale of the logistics involved and that unique frisson of excitement on the first day of term as 800 students arrive and you wonder whether, despite all the meticulous planning, anything will work at all. Thankfully, it did, and within a matter of weeks we felt fully and wholeheartedly at home.

Fast-forward another six months to March 2020 and we will all remember another moment of particular significance: the unprecedented closure of schools across the country as we entered the first of the Covid-19 national lockdowns. We know all too well the journey that schools have been on since then, with remote learning, segregated bubbles, Covid testing centres on site, contact tracing, students and staff isolating, CAGS, TAGS, ‘mutant algorithms’ and goodness knows what else.

Yet, as we begin the new academic year, and review the latest round of government guidance, there is undoubtedly a genuine and palpable sense of hope as we emerge from the shackles of bubbles, say goodbye to compulsory face coverings in classrooms, and are liberated from the endless rounds of contact tracing and hybrid learning followed by lockdown.

As we stand on the cusp of a new ‘new normal’, there is a huge opportunity to embrace newly liberated spaces, to rethink how our schools function and work, and to creatively reimagine educational life both inside and outside the classroom in a world unrestricted by bubbles.

Why space and facilities matter

We all know that inspiring spaces and high-quality educational facilities are transformational – that the environment in which students learn and interact with one another changes the way in which they learn and interact with one another. The cumulative impact of this over time is enormous. This is why, year on year, school governors and leaders across the country invest so heavily to ensure that their students can enjoy exceptional facilities, purpose-built to the very highest standards of 21st-century education.

I was thrilled to learn that our new school has won a Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) West Midlands Award 2021 and has gone through to the national final of the RIBA Awards to be announced in the autumn. Paul Baxter and Nicholas Hare Architects won Project Architect of the Year for their superb work on King’s High. Yet, aside from the gongs, it’s important to remember the fundamental improvements that inspiring spaces and high-quality facilities bring.

These can range from straightforwardly logistical matters (for example, we no longer need to bus our students across town to access sports facilities and swimming lessons, and we now have ample parking for staff and visitors), to the deeper impact on student and staff wellbeing, and the ways in which inspiring spaces can support and strengthen anti-bullying systems in schools.

At King’s High, our new inspiring spaces project is fully under way, developing and further improving our internal and external spaces. For example, we recently opened our new forest school for our Warwick Preparatory School students, complete with a new apiary for students and staff across our Foundation schools to enrich opportunities for outdoor learning. We’ve also opened new social areas within school, alongside a new quiet study and wellbeing hub, with chill-out spaces providing oases of calm and tranquillity amidst the busyness of the school day.

For me, apart from the more obvious benefits of our facilities, the fact that our new school is bathed in natural light, and both surrounded by and centred around open green spaces, is particularly impactful. Whilst the architectural decision to structure our main teaching spaces around a beautifully cloistered quadrangle may echo the traditional layout of the Oxbridge colleges, the value of internal green space providing a powerful focal point for our school community cannot be overestimated.

Consequently, we are more physically active as a school as we are able make the most of our 50-plus acre site, and more connected as a community as our new spaces – both internal and external – have provided greater opportunities for those all-important public moments (assemblies, social gatherings and performances).

Head Stephen Burley


Flexible classroom design and layout

When it comes to the mechanics of classroom design and layout, we know that we are at a moment of exciting change. Gone are the rigid seating plans in rows facing the front and the reams of gaffer tape separating teachers from students to maintain social distance.

We know, too, that the research fully endorses the impact that greater flexibility in the classroom can have on the quality of teaching and learning and on student outcomes. In 2014, for example, Park and Choi found that traditional classroom design leads to educational ‘shadow zones’, and provides an environment that only support the most able; the following year an important longitudinal study (Barrett, Barrett, Davies and Yufan) found that classroom design accounted for a 16% variance in student performance.

The latter study established three core areas that accounted for this: naturalness (light, temperature, air quality), individualisation (ownership and flexibility), and stimulation (complexity and colour).

Working from this research basis, we established a new classroom of the future staff working party at King’s High, led by head of geography Kirsty White, to explore further the complexities of classroom design and the impact that this can have on the quality of learning and outcomes. In September we opened two newly designed classrooms based on the ideas and findings of our working party.

Whilst we are deeply fortunate that our classrooms are flooded with natural light and that our designed airflow control systems can maintain an optimal temperature, we have chosen mobile Node chairs to provide maximum flexibility in layout, alongside writable paint or writing walls, with some added soft furniture and, of course, varied, bright, colourful and inspiring displays and decoration.

This will offer each teacher ownership and flexibility to organise learning and layout to suit the needs of every group and particular learning activity. With the added benefit of a technology-rich learning environment through one-to-one devices, we are excited by the possibilities of our very own classrooms of the future.

As the 2021 study authored by Cox, Warwick and Wood stated: “Classroom space is not a form of ‘container’ or a passive backdrop to pedagogical processes. Instead, space needs to be seen as part of the pedagogical endeavour itself, a flexible and everchanging factor.” This offers us a very timely reminder for teachers across the country as we begin the new academic year.

As we begin to emerge from the surreal parameters of our Covid world, there is a genuine and exciting opportunity to reimagine our learning environments and social areas in school to create innovative, flexible, forward-thinking spaces that inspire creativity and curiosity, and, importantly, support student and staff wellbeing.

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