Space odyssey: how schools are striving to make the most of facilities

Kim Renfrew looks at ways that schools are refreshing facilities to maximise potential for every stakeholder

Maximising the potential of a school’s structural assets is absolutely vital in today’s independent education sector. First of all, spaces have to stay practical, fresh and appealing for the more than half a million pupils enrolled across the country – especially the 69,000 boarders who spend the largest proportion of time in school surroundings.

Facilities also have to satisfy the expectations of parents and guardians, as well as matching up to the needs of the nearly 60,000 teachers who share and use those spaces, be they classrooms, common areas or even corridors (as we’ll explore later). That’s not to say that this comes without difficulties: making spaces work for their various users and uses can be a challenge.

Many independent schools have histories and tradition that must be preserved, while at the same time making them fit for a modern academic environment. But, as illustrated by the examples explored below, making the most of facilities can have the potential to attract pupils, grow school numbers and thereby contribute even more than the £13.7bn that, according to global forecasting body Oxford Economics, independent schools already contribute to the UK economy.

Rebuilding a boarding house

Giggleswick School is situated near Settle in North Yorkshire. In September 2018, it launched a large-scale refurbishment project of the main boarding facility, Nowell House, to make it fit for the needs of 21st-century boarders – and introduce a bit of ‘wow factor’ to replace the extant ageing facilities. To achieve these aims, the school teamed up with education interior design specialists Envoplan.

The project was a big investment for the school and didn’t come without its own challenges; Giggleswick’s long history (it dates back as far as 1512) means buildings are listed and this needed to be taken into account when undertaking the total renovation.

Bedrooms, common areas and washrooms were all reconfigured in a way that was sensitive to the school’s heritage. Nowell House was zoned into living, working and sleeping areas, with the intention of bringing in elements of home. Kitchens were central to this plan and shared social spaces were shaped to facilitate interaction between year groups. Envoplan were involved in everything from strip-out to the manufacturing and fitting of furniture, and they reflected the school’s aims by working with conservationists and involving staff and students in the design process.

In fact, design workshops were held with the boarders who will actually live in the end-product.

Our challenge has been to future-proof our provision to meet the changing needs of parents and the expectation of our pupils

Giggleswick’s director of admissions and external relations, Jane Paul, says that their objective was “to provide the best home-from-home experience for everyone from full boarders to flexi-boarders and day pupils”.

She adds: “The redesign is now more reflective of a family home where pupils spend their daytimes on the lower floor of the house, in the living areas, kitchen space, individual and shared studies, then boarders go upstairs to bed.” To avoid disruption to the timetable, most work was completed during holidays, with messier work undertaken outside school hours.

“Our challenge has been to future-proof our provision to meet the changing needs of parents and the expectation of our pupils,” says Paul, and the project has given them a template for the future, with Paley and Shute Houses up for refurbishment next. The Nowell House refurbishment was so successful it was shortlisted for the 2019 Boarding Schools Association awards.

The powers of 10 rule is made into a striking mural on a staircase at Bloxham School

Making walls come alive

Bloxham School is a co-educational day and boarding school near Banbury, Oxon. It also expressed the aim of bringing the ‘wow factor’ to its science facilities, which are housed in a 1960s brick block that is less visually pleasing than its other traditional Horton Sandstone buildings.

When the school was investing in refurbishing and expanding the block to accommodate growing pupil numbers, they decided to inspire students – and make a statement – with eye-catching, science-themed murals between rooms. Ninety-eight square metres of bespoke décor was created by educational wall art specialists Promote Your School.

Again, the school was heavily involved in the process: “Heads of department were given ownership of their area to ensure that there was staff support for the project but with a remit to produce something which stretched thinking and discussion about their subject,” says deputy head (curriculum) Matthew Buckland. 

The pictures don’t just beautify what would otherwise be rather prosaic locales, corridors that channel pupils from A to B. Rather, they maximise potential educational spaces, taking learning out of classrooms and making it ambient, since murals go into specific detail about their subjects: one wall uses the powers of 10 rule to illustrate atom size and the distance of galaxies, while another shows the science careers that are open to students.

Designs are focused by subject area, so the chemistry area features the periodic table, biology illustrates how the subject has advanced with a timeline of major developments, while the maths zone shows key thinkers in the field. Murals also serve as teaching aids for staff. “It’s been good to see bits of lessons in the corridor,” says Buckland.

The project is equally successful on an aesthetic level, too. “The aim was to take a somewhat dark and uninspiring part of the school and to make the area into a modern learning space which immediately grabbed the attention of students, staff and visitors as they transitioned within the building,” says Buckland.

The aim was to take a somewhat dark and uninspiring part of the school and to make the area into a modern learning space

The artwork has received positive responses from all who see it and it enhances learning in a way that the old departmental noticeboards could never achieve.

Buckland adds: “As an oversubscribed independent school, we have a regular flow of prospective students visiting throughout the year and the building now presents a much-improved image of the school and what we are aiming to achieve in the classroom.”

In The Kingsley School’s physics lab, S+B’s SpaceStation furniture maximises workspace

Futuristic science laboratories

While expanding lessons out of the classroom is relevant, the spaces in which formal lessons take place are, of course, of utmost importance, and science was again the driving force behind a major redesign at The Kingsley School. It’s a highly valued discipline at the girls’ senior school in Leamington Spa, where most pupils take three sciences at GCSE, gaining a 100% pass rate in 2019.

Although the school occupies a Victorian manor house, its science facilities were 1970s labs that needed considerable refreshing. To achieve this, the school undertook detailed discussions with laboratory and educational furnishings experts S+B, and together they took an in-depth, sustained look at the school’s teaching style and what it wanted to achieve from the refurbishment.

From those early discussions, it became clear that each science would be taught very differently and therefore different classroom furniture systems would be required. Subject heads and the school’s estates manager met with S+B and the contractor for detailed discussions.

In the end result, biology laboratories were kept rather traditional with forward-facing desks but with an overall modern design: they achieved this with S+B’s Crescent system. The school valued the flexibility the system offered.

S+B’s sales manager, Mark Fitzpatrick, says: “It can facilitate theory on one side and practical on the reverse. This changes the orientation of the classroom and encourages a dynamic teaching and learning style.”

As an oversubscribed independent school, we have a regular flow of prospective students visiting throughout the year and the building now presents a much-improved image of the school

For chemistry lessons, the school favours a collaborative learning approach, so it opted for workstations that allow students to face the teacher for the theory elements of lessons, then spread around the circumference of the workstations for group practical sessions. To meet these teaching requirements, the school asked S+B to install Saturn and Mercury systems.

The largest lab, physics, was the one the school wanted to make into their showpiece. They achieved this with installation of strikingly modern, propeller-shaped workstations and underlighting, which – as well as looking impressive – also allows students uninterrupted workspace for experiments.

Both physics and biology labs needed considerable storage for equipment, so floor-to-ceiling Spacesaver Working Walls were installed, maximising storage with minimal encroachment onto the classroom floor, and with facilities that allow for the use of both interactive and traditional dry-wipe whiteboards.

The STEM teaching facilities were kitted out with dropleaf furniture that can be folded or unfolded, allowing pupils and staff to arrange lessons in whatever formation required: groupwork, scale drawing, building models for robotics, large-scale experiments or demonstrations by teachers. The project was installed in August 2018 and it took approximately four weeks to complete, at a cost of £100,000.

Feedback from all quarters has been incredibly positive: the pupils love the modern look and design of their new laboratories and workspaces, while staff say that the new labs fit the teaching style perfectly. Ultimately, the school believes that modernising the facilities in such an eye-catching and practical way will encourage prospective students to join them.

You might also like: Future-proofing the classroom

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