Schools do not need to make massive improvements to school buildings to bring about improvements in learning – simple, inexpensive changes can make all the difference, according to Design Council research.

Repainting classrooms or replacing furniture could have a significant impact on pupil morale, health and performance, according to a report from the Design Council.

The research, carried out by Newcastle University’s Centre for Learning and Teaching, looked at the impact of previous phases of investment in schools to see if future plans are money well spent. They studied a number of environmental factors such as lighting, air quality, noise, colour and room arrangements and found that, in many cases, small and relatively cheap alterations brought about improvements in learning.

Complex issue

Learning environments are multi-faceted, making it difficult to quantify exactly what impact different factors have on learning, acknowledge the researchers.

While it is easy to prove that poor environments, including excessive noise or inadequate ventilation, can have negative effects on staff and students, once the learning environment comes up to the minimum standards evidence of the effect of design changes is less clear-cut, says the report.

‘No one knows how to prevent “learning-loss” when you design a room “pedagogically”, whereas we know lots about designing for minimum heat loss,’ said Professor Stephen Heppell, Director of Ultralab, Anglia Polytechnic University’s learning technology research centre, at an expert seminar run by the Design Council to inform the research.

One thing is for sure, neglecting your school buildings will eventually have a negative impact on the attitudes of staff and pupils, as well as potentially leading to absence through ill-health or alienation and truanting, all of which reduce learning time.

According to Ofsted, one-quarter of schools fail to conform to standards and regulations on temperature control, lighting, air quality and acoustics – all environmental factors that are proven to have detrimental effects on concentration, mood, wellbeing, attendance and, ultimately, attainment.

Allowing all learning to thrive

Given the increasing emphasis in today’s education reforms on personalised learning, more attention will need to be given to creating learning environments where all types of learning can thrive. ‘The Government’s emphasis on personalised learning reflects a much broader and subtler view of learning than the “chalk and talk” alternative,’ writes Toby Greany, Campaign Leader – Learning Environments, at the Design Council, in his foreword to the report.

He also emphasised how a changing view on how we learn, prompted by research into such areas as learning styles, formative assessment, multiple and emotional intelligences, and constructivism, requires a different type of learning environment, one that is very different in approach to the 30-students-in-rows model. Today’s learning environments will need to reflect this if students are to have the chance to achieve their potential.

Taking ownership

The report The impact of school learning environments – a literature review also reveals the important role curriculum managers can play in the whole process – how the design changes are managed is key to their success. Just making physical changes alone is not enough, as the open-plan classroom movement showed, says the report – these changes need to be owned by the users themselves, or supported by effective systems that ensure behaviour change or they will not work.

Seeking the views of staff, students and other users of the school building will give the design improvements greater chance of improving pupil behaviour, wellbeing and attainment, says the report.

One of the key recommendations made by the researchers is that schools ensure that any environmental improvements they make are embedded in teaching and learning concerns. They also call for more research into the effects of the design process on both teachers and learners, and on the different ways in which the design process is managed.

The impact of school learning environments – a literature review by Steve Higgins, Elaine Hall, Kate Wall, Pam Woolner and Caroline McCaughey of the Centre for Learning and Teaching School of Education, Communication and Language Science at the University of Newcastle is published by the Design Council and is downloadable via: