If there was a way to improve attainment within schools with minimal investment, wouldn’t this be something to grasp with both hands? A detailed UK report in 2015 (the HEAD Project – Holistic Evidence and Design) found clear evidence that well-designed primary schools boosted children’s academic performance in reading, writing and maths. Differences in the physical characteristics of classrooms explained a 16 per cent variation in learning progress over a year for the 3766 pupils included in the study.

A Missed Opportunity?

So what’s happened since the report was published? There’s been interest and follow-on work outside the UK but, in the UK itself, initial interest from the Department for Education hit a brick wall when additional funding was sought from the Treasury. While there has been follow-up interaction from a few councils and individual schools, the national response has been lacklustre, to put it politely.

It wasn’t a small piece of work. It was funded by the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council and included detailed surveys of 153 classrooms from 27 diverse schools. It considered a wide range of sensory factors and used multilevel statistical modeling. It found that the most influential factors, in terms of importance, were:

  • Naturalness: light, temperature and air quality (around half the learning impact);
  • Individualism: ownership and flexibility (around one-quarter);
  • Stimulation: appropriate level of complexity and colour (around one-quarter).

Whole school factors (such as size, navigation routes, specialist facilities and play facilities) did not seem to be nearly as important as the individual classroom design.

The subsequent funding would have provided monies for all UK state schools to access to improve their classrooms. There was well-grounded practical advice in the form of a 52 page Clever Classrooms summary report.

The lead author, Professor Peter Barrett, was at University of Salford when working on the study but has now left and with his fellow academic and wife, Dr Lucinda Barrett, has been independently working on projects in this area.

There has been “take up from a few keen schools” in the UK since the report, says Professor Barrett,

“and yet these are things that don’t need to cost much money, if anything in some cases”

Clever Classrooms: A Missed Opportunity?

Non-UK Progress: Norway, Romania and the World Bank

Instead, the Barretts have done work with the Norwegian government looking at an initial three schools – two old, one new. In fact, the latter was “dreadful for individualisation and stimulation… the Norwegians themselves came to conclude that it had been designed as if for grown-ups, not children”, says Professor Barrett.

In Romania, commissioned by the World Bank, there has been analysis of an initial handful of urban and rural schools. In the former, lack of space mean classrooms are sometimes used for primary school children in the morning and secondary school children in the afternoon, which is a challenge. In the rural schools, there tends to be more space but this is often under used.

Work has continued with the World Bank. It puts millions into schools in developing countries but, understandably, the focus is typically on aspects such as: are they in the right location; is there water supply and sanitation; and are they earthquake-proof. If the planning for new schools could also consider whether they provide a good learning environment, says Professor Barrett, then that would be valuable as well. A report arguing this view is under preparation working with parts of the World Bank in Washington and Moscow.

There has also been interest from some manufacturers, resulting in meetings and seminars. One of these is lighting and windows specialist, Velux; another is a schools furniture manufacturer.

There has been interaction in the UK with some schools on a one-to-one basis, in the state, academy and private sectors. However, this model is time-consuming and piecemeal so it would be much better to have a clear lead from the centre, including at an international level from the likes of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Next Steps

There are other related studies now going on around the world looking at, for instance, how classrooms need to be configured for different teaching styles. “There’s emerging work highlighting that if there’s a mismatch [between configuration and teaching methods] it can cause tremendous trouble,” says Professor Barrett.

Meanwhile, the 2015 report isn’t exactly gathering dust but it isn’t clearly influencing UK education policy either. “Different findings will come out, they won’t be exactly the same, but I am pretty confident they will be along similar lines,” he says. Perhaps the lack of other previous work is a reason it has been