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Barbara Follows

Barbara Follows, M.Ed

"My philosophy is that every child is unique and, whatever their differences, every single child matters."

The effect of school buildings on attainment

It is a rare occasion when I take umbrage with something that appears in SEBDA News. But I did when I saw this statement from a prominent Professor of Education at the London Institute of Education given whilst discussing the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme:

"I would say school building is the least important aspect in improving standards in attainment," (quoted from TES, 2 December 2011) in issue 26 of SEBDA News.

I am sufficiently piqued to respond forthwith! I can understand Professor Wiliam's frustration with the shortcomings of the prematurely deceased BSF but I believe that the school building is one of the most important aspects in improving attainment. This is a particular interest of mine, having researched the topic in some detail and witnessed first-hand the effects of school buildings of all shapes and sizes on pupil attainment in the UK and Namibia.

I have followed with interest Professor Dylan Wiliam's work on improving teaching techniques and formative assessment and have experienced the methods being used successfully in the classroom. However, that success would have been much more difficult to achieve in a classroom environment that could hinder teaching and learning and impede the introduction of new ideas and ways of working to the pupils.

Maslow's Hierarchy of NeedsMaslow's Hierarchy of Needs shows that physical needs have to be met to enable children to feel safe and secure before they feel valued and can develop the confidence to achieve. Therefore, Professor Wiliam is quite right in saying that good lighting and acoustics are an important area of good school design. But I believe that he is wrong to say that those two, plus other contributors such as temperature and overcrowding, are the most minor factors in pupil achievement. The University of California in a report in 2002 found that: "The weight of evidence supports the premise that a school building has a measurable influence on pupil attainment. Researchers have found that pupils housed in badly designed buildings achieve between 5% and 17% less than those pupils in learner-friendly environments."

This is certainly what I found whilst working in Namibia, even bearing in mind other factors pertinent to Sub-Saharan Africa.

The school environment also includes that which we cannot see. In 2002 the American National Clearing House for Educational Facilities posed the question: "Do school facilities affect academic outcomes?" Its report stated that 15,000 schools suffer from poor indoor air quality, affecting more than eight million children or one in five pupils in America's schools. The symptoms, which included irritated eyes, nose and throat, upper respiratory infections, nausea, dizziness, headaches and fatigue, have collectively been referred to as "sick building syndrome".

Classroom in NamibiaA user-friendly building, fit for purpose, does not necessarily have to be a new one. In fact, teething troubles in new buildings can cause results to dip whilst adjustments are made both in the building and in ways of teaching. But renovation of an existing building or being housed in a purpose-built environment can raise morale and lead to improvements in teaching and learning. This effect cannot be dismissed as not important. One of Professor Wiliam's colleagues put it succinctly when she said: "Future research must adopt a more holistic approach to examining the factors responsible for student achievement, including the physical environment." (Helen Clark, 2002)

The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) studied the effects of the school environment on young people's attitudes towards education and learning, as shown in this summary of their conclusions from 2008:

There is a good deal of evidence to indicate that student attitudes had become more positive after the move into the new school buildings. In particular the proportions of students:

  • who said that they felt safe at school most or all of the time increased from 57% to 87%;
  • who said that they felt proud of their school increased from 43% to 77%;
  • who said that they enjoyed going to school increased from 50% to 60%;
  • who perceived that vandalism was at least "a bit of a problem" in their school decreased from 84% of respondents to 33%;
  • who perceived that bullying was a big problem decreased from 39% of students in the "before" survey to 16% in the "after" survey; and
  • who expected to stay on in the sixth form or to go to college increased from 64% to 77%.

The numbers and levels of positive findings do suggest a strong association between the move to the new surroundings and improvements in students' outlooks regarding their experience of school and their expectation for the future.

The effect of the school environment has particular relevance for those students with SEBD.

The stress of being in an unsympathetic environment which increases alienation and discourages social inclusion can lead to challenging behaviours and a resulting downturn in attainment.

A successful teacher has to be aware of the effect on behaviour of the physical elements in the classroom and adapt, change and alter as necessary to encourage learning - or ignore it at their peril. The Special Educational Needs Joint Initiative for Training (SENJIT) in its exploration of the relationship between school buildings, learning and behaviour found that: "Effecting positive change within the school environment can raise the expectations of the school community, including parents and others, and can act as a powerful motivator for beneficial changes in practice." (SENJIT, 2001)

So, can Professor Wiliam really be correct that school buildings are the least important aspect in improving standards in attainment?

(Published in SEBDA News, issue 27, summer 2012)