BUILDING BETTER SCHOOLS
The modern learning environment is expanding beyond the classroom walls. Seamlessly integrating the latest designs and technologies, these flexible workspaces spill out to the school grounds and incorporate sustainable design to drive down costs and reduc
SCHOOL infrastructure is a fundamental pillar for a student’s success in schooling.
“We are all impacted by our environment,” Association for Learning Environments Australia past-chair and architect Richard Leonard said.
“Churchill’s oft-quoted remark that ‘we shape our buildings and thereafter they shape us’, holds true.
“In contemporary education models, we often see the older style school buildings – especially the ‘cells and bells’ models – getting in the way or even preventing more innovative teaching and learning approaches.”
The Australian school system is evolving, steering further from the 18th century “industrial model of education”, and responding to the needs of a changing curriculum in which technology and collaboration are at the fore.
“Recently, more progressive approaches to education have led to a very significant re-thinking of the environments that support them, especially in the Australian context,” Mr Leonard said.
“In the last 10 years or so, we have really witnessed a dramatic shift in many learning environments towards more purposeful learning settings, supporting the more contemporary teaching and learning pedagogies.
“These environments are typified by providing a rich variety of seamlessly inter-connected spaces for small groups, large groups, one-on-ones, collaborative activities, multi-media functions and are both internal and external – a far cry from the ‘cells and bells’ approach of traditional classroom settings.”
Electronic whiteboards are starting to replace the static blackboards and whiteboards of the past, acoustic partition walls and movable furniture are creating more flexible work spaces, wireless network integration and a ‘bring your own device’ model allow students and teachers to be connected at all times, and new facilities such as STEM focused buildings and wellness centres are sprouting up across a number of schools.
Learning is not confined to the classroom, sprawling out to all areas of the school, incorporating intelligent design to promote critical thinking.
Interestingly, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) PISA
2015: Reporting Australia’s results published by the Australian Council for Educational Research highlighted the importance of school buildings to learning, stating many principals believed inadequate or poor quality physical infrastructure to have hindered their capacity to provide instruction.
“34 per cent of principals of students from disadvantaged schools compared with
12 per cent of principtals of students from advantaged schools identified this as an issue,” it stated.
The statistic also illustrated the division between independent schools with flowing funds and lower socio economic schools relying on government support; an issue that had become even more heightened with the rapid pace technology was advancing.
Sustainable design was undoubtedly a trend schools were getting behind.
Recognising that funding is often limited, architects and builders looked at innovative ways to cut costs for schools in the long term and reduce emissions, while enhancing the learning experience.
Devices such as solar panels, water collection and air quality control systems played a dual role as a sustainable design feature, while acting as a learning tool for students.
At Cathedral College Wangaratta in Victoria for example, a feature trombe wall took up the role of heater in the Environmental Science Laboratory, giving students the practical experience of being kept comfortable by the building itself, rather than solely relying on air conditioning.
“Across the college, solar panels feed back into the grid and storm water feeds the school’s toilets,” Cathedral College principal Adrian Farrer said.
“A Science Garden yields vegetables, herbs and eggs for the kitchens, but also features a windmill and many other projects constructed by students in our Materials Technology area.
“The practical skills practised in these environments complement the integrated technologies each room has access to; something vitally important in the digitally rich world in which our students exist.”
At Hillbrook Anglican School in Queensland, the school recently undertook a refurbishment to ensure the entire school was wireless to allow for anyplace, anytime learning, and introduced two Australian native stingless bee hives to embed sustainability into learning.
Energy efficiency also came under the sustainability umbrella, with schools incorporating strategies such as building orientation to capture natural light and the winter sun; cross ventilation to promote summer cooling; double glazing; and appropriate insulation to the walls, ceiling and flooring.
“The first step is certainly to incorporate these initiatives into buildings – indeed it’s the environmentally responsible thing to do – but then we should integrate them into the learning for them to be truly effective,” Mr Leonard said.
Sustainability was also supported by the Federal and State Governments, such as South Australia, where a Sustainable Schools Program (SSP) was launched to improve the economic and environmental sustainability of school buildings.
This year, the South Australia Government invested $15 million to improve facilities at 240 State schools, with works scheduled to be complete at the end of 2018.
Schools were also taking disability facilities into account, ensuring the school environment was inclusive for all students.
Byford Secondary College in WA was one school that followed this approach, and took it one step further in March with the introduction of a new hydrotherapy pool for students with high-needs disabilities.
Statewide Planning and Delivery executive director Stephen Baxter said the school building was planned and built with a range of facilities for disabled students from the local and wider Armadale area.
“The school currently has about 30 students with disability out of about 1000 students, and we expect these numbers to grow,” Mr Baxter said.
A handful of elite private schools across the country, such as Melbourne Girls Grammar School, Geelong Grammar and Presbyterian Ladies College in Perth, were also building multi-million dollar wellness centres, which incorporated facilities such as yoga studios, reflection and meditation zones, and consulting rooms for counselling and nutritional support.
THE MODERN CLASSROOM
The traditional classroom blueprint was also transforming, with architects paying close attention to how schools could be designed to support the teaching methods of today and tomorrow.
“I think the interesting issue that the emerging technologies have brought is a shift from the “hard” systems – the physical infrastructure supporting technology, to more emphasis on the “soft” systems – the methods of teaching and learning,” Mr Leonard said.
“For example, as recent as about a decade ago, IT Classrooms were being promoted as the primary building response to technology; that is, providing a classroom for students to learn how to work with the technology.
“But now, we don’t see those rooms being required anymore.
“Computer rooms are now ‘white elephants’ – all the information can now be stored and accessed on personal mobile devices.
“Similarly, the infrastructure of the green screen facilities is required even less; although the facilities dedicated to video recording remain useful, students can also produce a video using their smart ‘phone.”
Schools were also installing technologies that facilitated videoconferencing with other campuses or schools and institutions, both nationally and in other countries.
“These installations represent a virtual reshaping of schools, and a virtual disintegration of the bricks and mortar that traditionally define schools,” Association of Heads of Independent Schools of Australia (AHISA) chief executive Beth Blackwood said.
Now school classroom design typically involved smaller hubs with break out spaces for group activities, furniture that could be reorganised into different shapes and classroom walls which could open up to others.
“Architects are now incorporating walls and glass that can be used as writing surfaces, interesting use of space such as occupied stair cases and walls and furniture that can be reconfigured to suit the class needs,” Peter Carnley Anglican Community School principal Felicity House said.
At Kings Christian College in Queensland, the early learning spaces also comprised mobile furniture on large colourful wheels, similar in appearance to a train, in which children were encouraged to move themselves to create different spaces, where at Swan View Senior High School in WA, the school had welcomed colourful kidney-shaped movable desks and wobbly seats that mimicked fit balls.
“Our teachers have noticed an immediate change in students’ behaviour, the amount of work they get through in class, and their concentration levels since using the new furniture,” Swan View Senior High School principal Melesha Sands said.
“The moving stools - akin to a swinging chair - keep our students on task, especially our boys.”
In the big picture, schools needed to consider the Government’s push towards carbon neutrality when buildng new infrastructure, Mr Leonard said.
“In 2015, the South Australian government and the Adelaide Council committed to make the city the world’s first carbon neutral city by 2050, and earlier this year, the Victorian State Government successfully passed the Climate Change Act which, among other aspirations, targets net zero carbon emissions also by 2050,” he said.
“What does this mean for schools? “Well, for a start, 2050 is not far away – especially in building terms.
“Any building being planned today will be due for a half-life refit by around 2050.
“We can’t wait until 2050 to design carbon neutral schools, we need to start now and schools should be at the forefront of this initiative.”
Mr Leonard said the challenges for schools today were “enormous”, from ageing facilities to entrenched traditional attitudes of what a school should be by conservative parents.
“All too often, all the parents want is simply a slightly better version of their own school – but very much the same model because ‘it was good enough for me’,” he said.
“Yet these old-world views will not serve our students well and will not adequately prepare them for their futures.
“So, the biggest impact we can have is the shift in mindset; to agree that change needs to be made and that such change needs to be significant.”
At an institutional level, the emergence of vertical schools in high rise buildings, was a modern solution for schools in high-density areas.
“In the inner-urban areas we are responding with schools on smaller sites, that form community hubs, that co-share with municipal infrastructure (libraries, ovals etc) and that are re-imagining the model of a
21st century school,” Mr Leonard said.
“If done well, it’s a positive outcome for both students and the community.”
The Federal and State Governments remained committed to improving infrastructure across both government and independent schools, through a string of capital grant initiatives.
The Turnbull Government’s Capital Grants Program (CAP) provided funds for non-government schools, in accordance with its guidelines, to purchase land with buildings, assist with planning, erection of buildings, alteration extension, refurbishment or demolition of a building, and upgrade of facilities.
In Victoria, the State Government also heavily invested in new schools, school buildings and more than 1000 school upgrade projects through a $2.4 billion investment in infrastructure, while in South Australia, the department recently invested
$250 million to refurbish and redevelop school facilities to provide STEM learning hubs.
Reflecting on the funding available, Mr Leonard said while the education system could never say enough was being done, Australia like all countries lived in a world of finite resources, political change and necessary compromise.
“The recent projections of the Grattan Institute predict enormous increase in student numbers in the next decade across Australia,” he said.
“The Grattan Institute projections translate to the requirement for 765 new schools within a decade.
“So, the real issue here is to ensure this massive roll-out of new school infrastructure across Australasia provides the very best foundation for teaching and learning into the 22nd century.”
Mr Leonard said the figures, as astounding as they were, only related to new schools and it was existing ageing infrastructure that also required attention.
He said Australia had to think smart to strike a balance between building new schools to accommodate the growth and ensure existing schools were not falling behind.
“While recognising that we’ll probably never, ever have enough money, at least we can ensure that what we do has maximise impact and is the most cost-effective,” he said.
“To design and operate contemporary schools, we simply must know what works and what doesn’t so that the money we spend in developing innovation education facilities is well targeted.”
Caulfield Grammar Learning Precinct.