Thoughts about the BCSE Learning Environments Conference

Image from Steve Dolet under Creative Commons Licence

I attended the Learning Environments Conference organised by the British Council for School Environments, it was subtitled ‘future funding: future planning’ which gave a flavour of the kinds of presentations and discussions on offer which were all about making sense of a world post BSF, post Building Colleges for the Future (remember that??) and post James Review. It was a stimulating day, with speakers giving an insight into the breadth and depth of work in learning environments which is currently underway. Refreshingly the conference was genuinely cross sector with Higher education being represented as well as primary and secondary education and mixed usage urban regeneration projects. This gave the opportunity for the kinds of dialogue and sharing of experience which are all too rare as formal education and higher education tend to gather into silos and don’t do enough to explore common ground in how to design and deliver a decent learning environment.

This is not a formal write up of the conference, it’s more of a personal reflection on what I took away from the day.  You can access the programme and PDFs of the presentations here.   There are many excellent facets of the day I won’t be able to cover in this subjective vignette.  But it’s better than nothing and it puts some flesh on the bones of the tweets you can find at #learnconf11.

The first speaker in conversation with Ty Goddard from the BCSE,  was Laurence Leader, who is from the YPLA (the Young People’s Learning Agency) where he is head of capital and infrastructure. The YPLA was created from the splitting apart of the Learning Skills Council (LSC) and itself will cease to exist in 2012 when the new Education Funding Agency comes into play.  There are more than a handful of radioactive elements which can exist for longer than some of these quangos set up to administer Further Education funding, but Laurence Leader managed to say some very interesting things about how future allocation of capital will be needs driven, and how the YPLA will be absorbing some of the functions of Partnerships for Schools (PFS) and giving advice to schools on good practice in maintaining buildings.

Inigo Wolf from the London Diocese of Schools started his presentation with a quip that his organisation had founded its first free school in 1528.  A topical joke to kick off with, but as he proceeded it became clear that the board was doing serious work in school design and creating some compelling design principles to cope with the expansion of school places in densely populated urban areas. The trick that they had found was to locate housing above primary schools in order to keep costs down and make developments viable. Many valuable insights were shared during this session which included presentations from consultants and architects who were involved.

We were promised insights from the world of Higher Education and Eleanor Magennis from the University of Strathclyde, and a member of the Higher Education Design Quality Forum spun an entertaining and example rich narrative of work in her university to make learning environments more suitable for 21st century learning.  At this point an alternative title to the conference emerged: ‘it’s all about the furniture’.  Furniture is vital in learning space design, get it right and the space flows and wraps itself effortlessly around the socio-cultural activity, get it wrong and the furniture is the MDF equivalent of toothache, always present, always in the way, and always stopping you from getting things done.  Many of the delegates specialised in school design but could clearly see how Eleanor’s work had clear parallels with their own.

An excellent afternoon session saw Patrick Hazlewood from St John’s School in Marlborough talking about the journey to creating a new school building. Dr  Hazlewood  is the yin to Nick Gibb’s authoritarian teaching yang, and the light to lighten Michael Gove’s self imposed narrow standards-driven darkness. He combines a powerful poetic way of speaking about learning and his students with a strong and reasoned grasp of what effective school leadership is. Some of his verbal riffs were truly memorable, ‘children need to love the buildings they are in, but the buildings need to love them back’ was one that stuck in my mind.   The 80 or so delegates were sure as they listened to him talk that they were listening to someone who grasped what it means to educate people in the widest sense and was able to put that vision into practice.  Later in the afternoon, others involved in the St  John’s project shared some of the tips and tricks of getting a school built with minimal investment capital and lots of clever tricks.  Barry Worth the bursar used the phrase ‘fail your way to success’ to describe just how single minded they had been in pursuing a school and how they refused to give up despite some local opposition, problems with land ownership and numerous other obstacles.  The St John’s project has led to a consultancy called ‘Building Schools for Nothing’ which is well worth checking out.

Toni Kelly from the University of Birmingham gave an excellent presentation on technology for learning environments and drew on her experience as the orchestrator of new learning spaces at Birmingham and her work as chair of SCHOMS (the standing conference of Heads of Media Services) to illustrate the very real issues Higher Education is grappling with and solving. The furniture theme first spotted in the University of Strathclyde  re-emerged in this session as Tony showed us  plectrum tables to optimise group work and interleaving tables designed to allow group work and collaboration. I have blogged about Toni’s work before (link here) and once again what emerged was that success is linked to having a clear vision of what you want to achieve in any given space, sourcing the right solutions and then having a relentless attention to detail.

The final sessions were about efficiencies in the funding of schools  by  Stephen Lampard and a heady dash through international projects in Higher Education design by Andrew Harrison showing the sheer breadth of the spaces and places which universities across the globe are occupying.

The final lesson I took from the day was that learning environment design still has many passionate and knowledge advocates and in a post James Review, RIP BSF world with flat pack schools being mooted as a low cost solution to all ills,  there is still much work to be done. In particular it was clear that innovative pedagogy and learning space design need to go hand in hand.  Flat pack and ‘1 design fits all schools’ can be invoked as the only affordable response to the age of austerity, but this misses the mark by a long way. It misses the mark not because you need to reinvent the entire wheel every time you design a learning space because this day proved you didn’t need to.  It misses the mark not because when you reduce budgets you have to fall back on teaching methods of a previous century because a narrowing of the scope of the design has to go hand in hand with a return to the pedagogies of yesterday, because today proved also this was not inevitable.  What we learned was the debate about new pedagogies for the 21st century and the learning environments to support these are intertwined closely, in fact more than closely, they are essential the same thing. You can’t have one without the other.

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