Bristol Conversations in Education: Does School Design Matter? 16/1/2018

Professor Daniels presented an account of AHRC sponsored research that sought to address the need for learning environments to better respond to changing needs of curriculum and pedagogy.

I am a BILT Student Fellow working on the theme ReThinking Spaces and on the 16th January 2019 I attended a seminar by Professor Harry Daniels from the University of Oxford entitled ‘Does School Design Matter?’. I was particularly interested in the relationship between design and pedagogy and lessons that can be learned for the redesigning of spaces at the University.

Professor Daniels began by describing the impact that a building or physical space has on the way that we behave within it. He gave the example of starting a new job and using the built environment to help to determine the expectations for behaviour, communication and interaction. This is partly affected by physical features such as the furniture layout, lighting, and decoration, as well as the way that people interact with the space and with each other.

Professor Daniels’ journey into this area began around 2003 when, noticing the impact of wall displays in schools, he asked himself; ‘if a wall display can be powerful, what about the building itself?’ This has led him to research the perception and actions of students and teachers at four secondary schools in Kent, which were part of the Building Schools for Future (BSF) programme introduced in 2004 and were newly built or refurbished between 2010 and 2012.

Professor Daniels emphasised that the way that a space is used is not necessarily how it was designed to be used. The four schools in question were designed to promote the personalisation of learning, with teachers to be viewed as coaches or mentors. The County Council deemed that:

  • learning spaces should be versatile and flexible to cover all curriculum areas
  • there should be breakout areas and informal learning zones
  • students should have greater independence and agency over their learning
  • teachers should share many spaces with students and other staff
  • staff should teach in teams
  • there should be a high degree of visibility with the use of glass and an open plan design
  • community engagement should be promoted

The School Connectedness Questionnaire was distributed to children at the end of primary school, at the beginning of Year 7 and Year 8, and every time there was a change of headteacher. The research found that when teaching practice aligned with the design, the connectedness score was significantly higher than when the practice did not align with the intended design.

Whilst some schools found positive outcomes, with improved behaviour of students and better formative assessment practices by teachers, others struggled to use the space effectively. Two of the schools closed off open areas with glass panels or furniture, effectively attempting to reverse the radical changes that had been made. Professor Daniels explained that these differences in success can partly be accounted for by different approaches to school leadership and management. In places where high visibility was seen by management as allowing passive control and surveillance, teachers and students felt watched over, whereas in more relaxed settings where visibility was viewed as a way to promote a sense of community and belonging, staff and students enjoyed being able to collaborate and socialise more easily with others.

Where the redesign was successful, there was a strong vision from the start and an excellent programme of staff training in how to successfully work in the new spaces. Staff continue to collaborate to solve problems related to design issues and students are included in this dialogue. Staff report that students feel wanted, have improved confidence and aspirations. The open-plan environment mirrors the professional working environment and develops the skills that the commercial world is demanding. Professor Daniels highlights the importance of learning from other similar learning environments when redesigning educational spaces.

So, what does this teach us about the relationship between design and pedagogy, and what can we learn from it? This seminar highlighted to me that redesigning space does not necessarily transform pedagogy. This requires an ethos of trust where staff feel confident enough to be observed and to collaborate with others, and where staff are trained in teaching practice which aligns with the space design. In Higher Education, we need to learn from similar institutions which have redesigned their spaces to align with the shift towards more active, collaborative and inquiry-based learning. Yesterday, BILT visited the new Waterside Campus at the University of Northampton who are doing just that, and BILT are gaining staff and student perspectives on teaching spaces, as well as providing resources to staff, in the hope that our space will be fit for an imagined future.


Harry Daniels, Hau Ming Tse, Andrew Stables & Sarah Cox (2018) Design as a social practice: the experience of new-build schools, Cambridge Journal of Education, DOI: 10.1080/0305764X.2018.1503643