Parents blind to design

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A YouGov survey, commissioned by international architect Gensler, has revealed that only 6% of parents consider the design of a school’s learning environment in their top three criteria for school selection, and that 52% of parents chose geographical location and quality of teaching as the key drivers for school choice, closely followed by academic results at 51%.
These findings indicate that despite improved national academic results* and considerable investment from the Government, through new initiatives such as the Academies and Building Schools for the Future programmes, parents seem oblivious to the fact that the built environment plays a key role in transforming the learning agenda.
Philip Gillard, Gensler principal and practice area leader for education, said: “It is evident that new ways of teaching and learning are imperative to achieve an environment suitable for 21st century learning. Whilst offices, health facilities and retail environments have all evolved over the last century, schools have hardly changed. Today's students are brand savvy and IT literate; they’re visual learners, social networkers, multitaskers and gadget fanatics. They live in a knowledge economy and their relevant learning styles and modes of interaction that they demand are not in sync with the outdated traditional one size fits all approach. The impact that a combined approach to design, curriculum and technology has on education, is definitely being overlooked by parents, as demonstrated by our survey.”
In Maidstone, Kent, a ground-breaking learning model has been introduced turning the traditional teaching and learning styles on its head. The prototype plaza scheme, designed by Gensler, opened last year and is already achieving dramatic results beyond the Academies leadership targets.
A year after opening the results from the Plaza prototype are impressive, exclusion rates have plummeted, with Year 8 pupils dropping from 34 in the first term of 2008 to just 2 for the same period in 2009, and overall attendance levels have increased from 50% to 90%. Following its successful trial, the prototype is being incorporated within the permanent New Line Learning Academy currently being built and due for completion by 2011.
The ‘plaza’ concept was developed with staff at the Academy to provide a higher degree of collaboration between teachers and pupils and a flexible environment, rich in IT, enables a variety of learning settings to occur simultaneously – from individual personalised learning, to group based activities and a whole plaza scenario of 120 pupils.
The temporary prototype that has been built in a former sports hall, is aimed at providing modern facilities and a new way of learning for 90 13-year-olds, or Year 8 students. Designed to impact both mood and behaviour, the prototype incorporates 360-degree projection and large display areas, biometric lighting techniques to control and vary the ambience of individual spaces, and agile, responsive furniture to allow a variety of work mode settings - an environment akin to those experienced by users of Apple’s stores on the high street. Directly attached to this vibrant space is a vestibule area that contains lockers for each student, unisex toilets and an open hand wash area, that has been designed specifically to reduce bullying as well as create a comfortable homely ambience for the pupils to focus their young minds.
Gigi Luscombe, head teacher at the newly created New Line Learning Academy, said: “Even with the Plaza concept in its infancy, we are beginning to see the dramatic effect that it has had on our students. In order to meet both the academic and psycho social needs of tomorrow’s generation, we need to embrace change and take a more holistic approach to education and learning, and the design of the environment plays a huge part in that. It’s much more than replacing the blackboard with an interactive white board or providing extra computers, we need to start afresh, and literally break down the barriers that inhibit 21st Century learning.

The main results from the survey concluded that:-

  • The geographical location of a school is ranked as important as the quality of teaching staff, with both factors selected by 52% of people, the highest result in the survey. Academic results came third, selected by 51% of people.
  • The school curriculum and its specialism’s were selected by just 12% of people, with only the quality and design of the built environment ranked lower.
  • Reputation and behavioural policy were selected by 43% and 32% of respondents respectively, though there is disparity between the sexes in relation to the latter, which featured more highly among female respondents.
  • The quality and design of the built environment, and facilities, such as sports and recreation, swimming pools and IT suites were two of the three least selected factors, and were chosen by just 6% and 18% of people respectively. Quality and design of the built environment scored the lowest number of votes in the survey overall.
  • The quality and design of the built environment featured most highly in Scotland, with 8% of respondents selecting it as one of their top three factors. By contrast, it was selected by none of the interviewees in Wales, and just 3% of those in London.
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