Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Welly Cupboard

Without doubt my favourite sign seen on a school door for just ages is the Welly cupboard sign above.  I spotted it in a fantastic primary school in Wales. 

Interestingly, if you opened the door, it was full of ...... Welly boots. Pupils stored them there to use as part of a forest school project.  It's just fun and colourful and say what it does, rather the anonymous 'storeroom' we so much of!  

(Pity about the sticky tape though....)

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Big Scale Display...

I love it when I go into schools and see display that really catches my eye.  

Enter one primary technology classroom - massive models everywhere, hanging from walls, ceilings and from tables.  They were fantastic, creative and eye catching.  Having said that, there were lots of smaller projects following both simple and complex design briefs with good evaluations.  Everyone I spoke to loved the work and the motivation of students engaged with them.  It was not just about spectacular models but about the real design, learning and evaluation opportunities that creating them provided. Just fabulous!

Energy Walls

Visiting a primary school in London recently I saw that the new sports hall wall is totally covered with photovoltaic cells.  This is the first time that I have seen quite such a dense coverage on walls in a UK school.

Obviously this is a massive learning aid and I was pleased to see a real focus on energy creation, usage etc in the foyer as I entered the school.  It is clearly an ongoing major curriculum project. 

Despite government initiatives and resources I still visit far too many schools that do not explore the basic energy use learning opportunities available in their own schools. As energy gets increasingly expensive and as sustainability with alternative power sources becoming national agenda items it's a real shame that more schools don't focus on it. 

What a wasted chance! 

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

New School opens....

It seems a long time ago that I contributed to the design of the new Clifton Hunter High School in Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands as Senior Education Advisor to the Minister.  However, the new building went into operation this term and, guess what, the students love it, as do the may members of the public who have seen it.  It was one of three high schools designed, two of which are being built.

The design work was undertaken under the previous very brave Minister of Education, Hon. Alden McLaughlin who took a personal interest in the Third Millennium development and based on a concept design by Prakash Nair (Fielding Nair) and designed by Cannon Design and feature in 'The Third Teacher' book.  Professor Stephen Heppell also played a lead consultative role. 

 Aspects of the design did break boundaries in concept, but with a change of government after my departure it is now not as 'brave' ` design as was intended.  People often retreat when really they should drive forward. the progress of the young people would really surprise them!  It is especially possible in small countries like Cayman. However it is interesting to see the current Minister applaud the design.

Having also taught in the Cayman Islands was well as being a High School Principal there, I know just how fantastic these facilities are in comparison compared to the ones they had. However, given time and confidence, there is always the potential to revert to the original vision.

What is clear, is that the new facilities are causing a real pride amongst students with will surely reflect i the learning that takes place.  I would love to go and visit them - I wonder if I will get the chance!

Sunday, 23 September 2012

CEFPI - learning is changing, are the spaces?

So the annual cefpi World Conference on Educational Environments moved on to San Antonio, Texas this year.  The massively increased delegate list really demonstrates the continued interest in trying to get this important aspect of school facilities right.  It's not just more about the 'same old same old' - or is it?

I'm here co-leading a two workshop with students with Nick Salmon about how learning should look in  fifteen years time.  Part of one session was to respond to the architectural schemes on display. (More on the workshops in a later post).

Despite the talk and the good intentions. there are just so many examples of groups designing new 'old' schools.  Designs entered for the awards show great external elevations, good libraries, corridors and some attractive dining areas, but only a minority showed any images of the action zone - where learning takes place.  When they did, the discussion was much more animated and interested.

On schemes where they didn't, the reasons are all too obvious when the plans are examined.  Nearly all the classrooms resemble what could be Victorian classrooms, identically sized square boxes - or 'cells and bells', a phrase used much at this conference!  

There's been lots of talk of how learning must change and the environments allowing it to happen - the talk has happened for years - it really does need to start being put into action though!

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Numeracy needed...

Spotted by friends in a store recently....  probably confirms the focus for enhanced numeracy really....

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Pupil's Art - don't you just love it

During a recent visit to a primary school in London I just loved this model spotted in the library area, made a young student (maybe with just a little help?), of the Titanic.  It was just one of many such pieces of 3D artwork on display celebrating work of many students.

Whilst the proportions may be a little wrong - who cares?  What is clear is the concept of scale and grandeur, alongside lots of enthusiasm and fun.  It's fantastic!  This school is proud of its reputation for creativity - the work on show reflects the pupils enthusiasm as well!  

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Horrid Corners

I am just horrified how, even now in 2012, I visit schools and see designs that are frankly idiotic.  Recently I visited a primary school undergoing some significant refurbishment.  I was appalled to see a room being created within a larger space, but resulting in walls being built stopping just short of a large full length window.

The result is a long narrow gap, not much more than twelve inches wide for the full width of the glass.  From outside you will see a wall.  From inside - it will become a narrow little space which will attract litter or become a dumping ground.  We all know it will.

Why would anyone design this?  Even worse - why didn't someone challenge it before they started construction?  This is what I do a lot of the time for a range of companies - it really saddens me when I see someone get it all sooo wrong! It is the worst space I have seen for ages - some one should get in real trouble for this!  It's shocking.

Friday, 22 June 2012

the-learning-crowd: Excellent Teaching and Learning in Wales

Associates from our company: 'the-learning-crowd' are delighted to have been invited to attend the Welsh Government / HOVEP (Heads of the Valleys Education Project) conference: 'Excellent Teaching and Learning - How can technology help?' next week and help facilitate workshop groups of Headteachers and other delegates.

Led by Professor Stephen Heppell, the conference will consider many of the opportunities the future holds for education.  In addition to the keynote and numbers of workshops, there will be a Teach Meet afterwards where local good practice can be shared.  And good practice there is!  We identified several outstanding examples of fantastic transformational practice using technology during our background research for the report.  

I really like Teach Meet sessions - it's not about people from outside coming in and saying what should be done but absolutely about local schools sharing what they feel is working and what are the lessons learnt.  One of the better form of development.

the-learning-crowd has been involved with HOVEP since last year when we were commissioned to write a detailed report and action plan for education transformation in the HOVEP region.  (Merthyr Tydfil and Bleanau Gwent. 

The resulting report, even if described as comprehensive and hard hitting, is being used to help define strategy and action for coming months.

History in the Playground

I  really love it when schools are able to retain elements of the past in their school sites, instead of just clearing everything, as so many do!

I visited a primary school recently where part of the playground had originally been 'inside' a factory.  When they cleared the site, they left the old mill stones to become part of the external environment.  With the intelligent decision to put shade over them they have become a quiet seating area, a performance space for drama and music and a play areas for students to use their imagination.

Equally important is that you have old local artefacts as unique permanent teaching resources for local history lessons and so much more.  It's excellent!

External spaces are becoming more and more important.  It's features like this that a make them more interesting as well.  

Monday, 18 June 2012

Mirrors and Daylight

I spotted a clever solution spotted whilst visiting a primary school undergoing a refurbishment and extension scheme last week.  Whilst providing an important new external play area that is covered  between two reception classrooms, skylights have also been introduced to increased the natural light in what would have been a potentially dark area.  It will really contribute to what should be a fabulous space.

What is a clever bit of design (but not that new an idea) is that the vertical faces of the skylight are in fact mirrors not glass.  Not only does that help reflect daylight - it also adds a really interesting (and endless) effect for those underneath.  It should be really effective space.  It's hard to see in the photographs - but it is a great and fun idea!

Another school 'topping out'

In a week of schools nearing completion (see previous entry), I was also delighted to be invited to attend a 'topping out' ceremony of a major school extension in a London Borough a few days ago. Having been involved in all the designs sessions from the start it has been a great if complex project.  The school has almost zero outside space and is surrounded by roads and the Underground.

The photograph above shows skips and building 'stuff' covering all that is left of the playground. The space really is tiny! Developing a new Year 7 block, kitchen and dining area in this space was a challenge and really the only way was up.  We included an outside social area on the roof of the dining room to maximise the efficiency of the site.

One of the highights of the afternoon was, as usual, the faces of students looking around the new spaces for the first time.  They were really excited by the building and quite jealous that they would probably not be having lessons in the new classrooms that are designed for a wide range of teaching styles.

Everything about the new build has been modeled and trialled by the school in advance, from layouts, positioning of boards, types of furniture, the ICT used down to the type of carpet. Nothing has been left to chance - it is the best prepared schol I have worked with. 

One of the exciting things about the school is that they have also really tried to maximise the learning potential and opportunities available from having a major construction site on the school grounds. The students have been involved with several decisions on the project. It's a unique opportunity for schools to relate learning to a real project. I just wish more schools did it.

 The headteacher taking part in the 'topping out' ceremony

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Projects come to life...

It's always good when a project I've worked on come to fruition.  It's been some time when, as Strategic Advisor to the Minister of Education of the Cayman Islands, we started the transformation process of the education system, including the design of new state of the art high schools.  With lots of work done, I moved on to my current exciting life used in the UK.
Despite the world recession, contractor issues, a change of government and the complexities of building a 'hurricane proof' building, the first school is getting near to completion.  When it does open it will be a significant point for high school education in Cayman.
They are just fab 'school within school' buildings with a variety of different and agile spaces.  We worked closely with Professor Stephen Heppell on the concept and architects Trung Le (Cannon Design - formerly oWp/p) and Rick Dewar (formerly Cannon Design, Chicago).  These sensational buildings will be very much a talking point for the regions schools designers as well as visitors from all over the world.  They have been much talked about projects internationally.  
I just hope that they work as well as we hoped during the design process.  Who knows, I may even visit it some time - I really hope so! 

Sunday, 10 June 2012

A Whole City Approach..

Visiting Bruge recently I was really impressed to see students from every primary school in Bruge crowd into the city centre to celebrate a whole morning of environmental projects.   Led on stage entirely by students there were thousands of pupils there all participating in a variety of events on stage.  Every student seemed to have prepared in some way for this project, whether it was hand made hats throughout to giant banners.  Slick it certainly was and video on giant screens, singing, audience participation ensure that everyone seemed to be engaged. 
This was on the one dry day sandwiched between days full of rain - lucky they were, but we thought that they would have carried on regardless of rain.  The atmosphere was just excellent.
It started a conversation about when do we do things like this in the UK now?  Probably not often enough. 

Hook and Safety..

Spotted in a school corridor...... I am frequently critical about the over zealous nature of some people towards health and safety and often quite rightly so.   I also know storage is frequently a major problem for schools, however, even I was a bit taken aback to see these hooks simply drilled into a main corridor wall.

Talk about an accident waiting to happen...

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Blackpool students 'School of the Future' design wins cefpi award

Blackpool students win top award!

I'm really pleased that 'the-learning-crowd' senior associate Alison Watson has continued her amazing track record of success with UK students entering the cepfi School of the Future competition.  When Alison, through her company ClassofYourOwn introduced British schools to this exciting international design competition, the hope was to find a team that would make it through to the finals in Washington DC, USA. 

I am really pleased that yet again, through Alison's enthusiasm and passion a range of UK schools took part in the UK competition.

The following is from Alison's blog:

Sponsored by CEFPI and the National Association of Realtors® in collaboration with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency,  the American Institute of Architects, the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association and more than 20 other associations and private companies, the annual competition strengthens public awareness of the importance of well-planned, healthy, sustainable school buildings that enhance student and teacher performance and contribute to community culture and vitality.
The competition challenges students from across the globe to think creatively as they plan and design tomorrow’s green schools to enhance learning, be healthy, conserve resources, be environmentally responsive and engage the surrounding community.

After an exciting UK semi final at the Manchester offices of BDP, one of Europe’s leading interdisciplinary design practices, students from Highfield Humanities College, Blackpool, were chosen to represent Britain with their ‘Ocean Observatory’ learning centre and headed off to America’s capital city to take compete in the final leg of The School of the Future Design Competition, centerpiece of the Council of Educational Facility Planners International (CEFPI) School Building Week.

“For the past three years, we’ve been trying to encourage more young people to discover architecture, engineering and construction. We’re big fans of the CEFPI competition, and it’s a fantastic challenge for those students who have worked their way through our curriculum” said Alison  “They already possess a great degree of knowledge, and having the chance to travel overseas and demonstrate their skills is a fantastic achievement. We’re very proud of the students at Highfield for getting so far and extremely grateful to BDP, Blackpool Council and Autodesk for their support.”

All six teams had 15 minutes to present their projects to jury members, then grilled for a further 15 minutes by jurors who pull no punches!  “Facing a formidable 22-person jury would be a daunting experience for most adults, but these students took them on without a moment’s hesitation!” remarked David C. Edwards, CEFPI Chairman of the Board.  “The students continue to raise the bar each year in the rigorous competition. This year’s submissions epitomised project-based learning and demonstrated a deep understanding of the planning process and creating a sustainable future.”

An Award of Excellence went to joint winners Imago Dei Middle School from Tucson, Arizona and Teeland Middle School from Wasilla, Alaska. Both teams received $2000 for their schools for their extraordinary environmentally efficient designs. A very respectable runners up place and well deserved Award of Distinction was presented to Highfield Humanities College of Blackpool, Lancashire.

Imago Dei students acknowledged that they were fortunate to receive a good education and caring teachers so they designed a school for the children of Niger in West Africa who did not have the same opportunities.   They constructed their school from local, sustainable resources creating “polybricks” assembled from plastic water bottles and using bamboo walls to repel malaria-carrying mosquitoes prevalent throughout the area.  Powered by solar energy, the building also makes great use of natural light and employs shade sails of woven bamboo to offer some relief from the extreme heat.  The students’ research efforts were impeccable, leading them to also design a portable school made out of the same materials to bring to communities where children cannot travel to the main school.

The Teeland Middle School team chose to build their facility on a landfill – truly embracing “renew, reuse, recycle” by creating walls made of materials mined from the landfill and covering them with solar wallpaper.  The cement building is constructed with carbon nanotubes, one of the strongest materials available synthesized from carbon-rich compounds such as plastic, which act as rebar.  The green roofs collect storm water and provide insulation. Again exemplifying “renew, reuse, recycle”, one of the three “aerodynamic” school buildings constructed to withstand the strong Alaskan winds houses the homeless, providing them with educational opportunities, an introduction to careers, use of all the community facilities and three meals a day.  Food for the facility and community was grown on campus.
Award of Distinction winner, Highfield Humanities College, UK, received $1,500 in prize money. Coming from a seaside resort community in northwest England, the students designed a building embedded into a sand dune on the sea front that would serve as a space for all learners, including the local community and visitors. Hard hit by the current economy, the team hoped that their unique school would encourage tourism and add to the local economy. The front of the building is constructed of glass that can withstand the pressure of the waves, allowing students to observe underwater sea life when high-tide covers the building. The building is powered by renewable energy including wind and wave power.  Dormitory space in the rear of the building can accommodate 42 students, giving them the opportunity to discover the alternative nightlife of Blackpool.

Three other US Middle schools – Newtown (Connecticut), Seneca (Michigan) and University (Texas), were presented with the Award of Merit, each receiving $1,000 for their own remarkable designs.

“Chairing the jury affords me one of the best days of the year,” remarked David Schrader, AIA, CEFPI  international board member.  “As we watched the presentations, it was clear that no matter how knowledgeable and talented each of the jury members were, the children’s message, knowledge, passion and enthusiasm humbled each and every one of us.  This remarkable day left us all aware that these students truly represent tomorrow’s leaders and our future is in good hands.”

The Council of Educational Facility Planners International (CEFPI) is the only US professional organisation whose principal purpose is improving the places where children learn.  CEFPI embraces a diverse group of professionals with one single goal – building healthy, safe, high performance and sustainable learning environments that enhance student and teacher performance and support culture and community vitality.  To learn more, visit www.cefpi.org.

To learn more about ClassofyourOwn click here.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Music School

Many people will recently have seen the photograph claiming to be a building for a music school in China.  Certainly if you look carefully you can see people appearing to be climbing stairs inside the 'glass cello'.  But is it genuine or a clever graphic?  Looking carefully the building appears to be located in the middle of no where...

But even if it is a trick - it is a great idea and has caused many comments.  It's fun enough to be great!  I kind of hope that it is genuine. Does anyone have any ideas? 

AND...... the answer - see comment below. It IS real but not a music school.... 

to see the truth follow this link

Wednesday, 18 April 2012


Today garethl.com is rebranded as the-learning-crowd.

There are lots of reasons for this but primarily is the fact that I am working really successfully with a group of associates on more and more projects, including in Wales and London. It just made total sense that we created a group identity. I am incredibly lucky to have six highly talented and experienced senior associates, working with the-learning-crowd and projects are going well.
This blog will continue, it is in its sixth year after all and it still has several thousand readers a year
For more on the-learning-crowd, please click here!

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

A Bath ........ and a Brave Carpet

Visiting an elementary school a few weeks ago in America, I was intrigued to see a bathtub in the library full of cushions. It turns out it was not a funky way to store the cushions but a treat for students who did well. The treat was being allowed to sit in the bath reading during informal reading time - apparently it is really popular! I've not seen it before but.... what ever works!

What did catch my eye was the carpet..... I spend a lot of time with schools all over the place considering aspects of design, including floor coverings. Never have I seen a carpet like this is a school.... it's certainly..... well a brave choice at least.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Simple Cable Management

Whilst in a new school recently I spotted these tables designed for simple cable management when pushed together in groups. The small cut out recess in the table top means computer cables can run from the floor box below providing power and maybe data, to laptops etc without getting squashed between the desk tops.

It's a simple, easy and cost effective design that will work for many schools. Some tables with installed cable management systems cost a fortune, putting them out of reach for the majority.
There is a bigger debate about the practicality of floor boxes in schools, and with the costs of school buildings being driven down, the affordability of them. However, in many schools they work well and support flexibility in how learning is organised which can only be a good thing. If floor boxes are installed simply for laptops or notebooks being plugged in, then as battery life continues to increase there could be less need for them... (as long as people keep their devices charged!).
Given the choice, but depending on the type of school, I'd still have them installed. Flexibility and options still work for me every time!

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Lab Furniture

Spotted recently whilst working in Kuwait - new Italian furniture for school laboratories. It's interesting, very high specification, and very different from the furniture normally seen in UK schools.

All the base units are on wheels so they can be easily moved to provide leg space or ensure the equipment they contain is safely transported to the place where it is needed. It has the feel much more of a professional, commercial laboratory rather than the standard benches seen in schools.
In the UK many schools would be concerned about sight lines and the ability to monitor students at all times. In the school indicated above students behave well and are trusted and the teachers and support staff move around the room. For a lecture or demonstration there is room to gather stools near the teachers demonstration desk as normal.
The student stools have backs on them - a deliberate decision and again something more and more schools are moving to to help students sit properly. In a UK school I am working with senior staff 'shadowed' students and discovered that one class had spent fifty percent of their day on stools with no backs - it's not good!
So new professional standard furniture in a standard space - it looked very good! I hope to go back so will report on how well it works with all the students using it.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Supporting a 'Classroom of the Future' Project

I am really pleased to have been asked to support, in a very small way, a class from St Gilgen International School in Austria, as they start a four week project on designing a 'classroom of the future'. It's is a fabulous project - students considering approaches to learning and what types of environment best support that. It is an important conversation between learners and teachers that can really contribute to the learning process.

Four weeks is long enough for some really good conversations to take place, and of course, once they've happened, the thinking and discussions remain with them.

I am very curious to see how their projects develop and how the students envision the future of learning spaces. Hopefully, we will be able to post some of their ideas on the blog for others to share.

It is also heartening that these conversations seem to be going on in increasing numbers in countries all over the world. In just a few days I will also be working with a school in Kuwait considering the future of their learning environments. It's only in the UK where, in some places, people seem to be trying to block these conversations at the moment. It's a pity and a backward step.

Good luck to the students doing the project!

Old and New - technology everywhere

There are not many Reception age classroom that I have visited where the balance between traditional dim new are quite so obvious and so integrated. In a Merthyr Tydfil school in Wales, I was struck by the arrangement that had a good old sand tray quite close to the interactive white board, next to shelves of reading books, sand toys and also open shelves containing ICT kit for the pupils. Neat it certainly was - used it also was!

With free choice everywhere and a range of easily accessible kit it was quite a special room. There were little recording devices next to the books so the 4 and 5 year old pupils could record what they said and hear it back straight away. There was ICT everywhere that was easy to reach when ever they wanted: easy to use robust video cameras. microphones, walkie talkies, programmable bugs and so on. Nothing 'special' or 'hidden away' about the ICT here.
It does, of course, carry on further up the school where ICT is everywhere to use, when it is appropriate and when needed. Of course it is the way forward... I just wish more schools were as trusting and progressive enough from the days pupils entered the school!

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Goldilocks and the three ....Drinking Fountains?

Visiting a different primary school recently we couldn't help but smile when we saw the drinking fountains - they just reminded everyone of a well known childrens story really, especially as they were located side by side so neatly.

The provision of water is really important and more and more schools are ensuring that there is provision all round the school both inside and out. Mind you, new drinking fountains are much neater these days - compare the ones above with a new one shown below which was installed in a new secondary school very recently. Most students couldn't believe it when they first saw it. It is pretty cool!

Thursday, 1 March 2012

New school - new efforts?

I was fortunate enough to be at the 'first day' of school for students as they entered a brand new secondary school building last week. It really was a case of leave their old building at the start of the half term break and return to the new one at the start of the next half term. Elements of the new building were constructed literally feet way from some class rooms so students have been able to monitor the construction process from day one.

There was a very positive and purposeful feeling about the students as they returned to school. They were keen to see around and there was early appreciation of their new lockers and ID badges. Much more importantly though, they were overheard saying that their classrooms were so much better, lighter, smarter and more professional that it would help make them work harder.
It is a fabulous building, although slightly cramped for a while as the buildings they have just vacated get demolished and the next phase of construction takes place. Once finished though the whole integrated campus will make a real difference from the random selection of buildings they left. The plans look great and the construction team from Balfour Beatty, working with the LEP '4 Futures' have operated as real partners with the school. This team approach has made the whole process apparently painless.
We'll see if the building does make a difference long term to students attainment, but the early signs and unprompted words look promising!

Monday, 27 February 2012

Learning - the future..

I was pleased to be able to co-chair an invitation only conference last week for UK Learning, the UK branch of cepfi. (Council of Education Facilities Planners International).

Hosted by the Manchester Metropolitan University, delegates included representatives from primary, secondary and special schools, architects, construction companies, Adult Education sector, Directors of Children's Services, an international schools organisation, Chief Executives of education groups, education consultants and also from the FF&E sector.
We were fortunate to get inputs from some fabulous speakers as we explored the issues and opportunities for education in the future whilst operating within context of today. Really interesting stuff. The speakers who challenged and motivated included:
  • Trung Le, the fantastic education architect and thinker from Cannon Design (Chicago) also known as the driving force from the visionary The Third Teacher
  • Professor Stephen Heppell, one of the worlds leading education thinkers (see Heppell.net)
  • Ollie Bray, National Adviser for Emerging Technologies in Learning at Education Scotland. Formore on Ollie, click here.
  • Mike Reading, Principal, The Oxford Academy
  • Eddie Murphy, Technical Director, Mott MacDonald
  • Aidan Ridyard, Director, Broadway Malyan Architects
  • Some of the excellent inputs and videos will go on line soon - and be posted on this blog, so please do come back to check them out.

The tiniest .....

Visiting a school recently the whole staff started laughing between themselves as they collected new board pens and erasers. The very diligent Business Manager thought they had found board erasers for a much cheaper price than usual. Only when they arrived did anyone realise why they were so cheap.... they were possibly the smallest ones ever seen. It certainly caused staff to laugh with each other... It was great that no one got cross, irritated or started moaning as may have happened in some places.

The rather embarrassed Business Manager was last seen being very busy...... ordering new ones... Staff have a guessing competition going on as to what size the next offerings will be!

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Bangkok Patana School

I have friends with children who are fortunate enough to attend the new Bangkok Patana School in Thailand. I recently watched their promotional video through a link on YouTube - it really is a fantastic facility and students who attend and staff that work there are really fortunate.

Whilst it IS very much promotional, it is interesting to see areas of the school that demonstrate a wide range of furniture, fixtures and equipment. The school obviously thinks it is important to help create good professional learning environments and ensure that students can sit and learn in professional standard furniture. It says so much about the ethos of respect of the school.
We know furniture and environments makes a massive difference to learning, despite some of the nonsense being spouted by politicians currently. As I continue to be involved with numerous school schemes around the UK, I do get depressed when ff&e is the first thing that gets cut as a 'frill' or clients ask for hundreds of identical chairs that could have been around decades ago. Life and expectation is changing, schools should be as well. Sitting students on cheap uncomfortable chairs in identical spaces just cannot be right, nor productive. No wonder they lose concentration, motivation and engagement.

To watch video of this amazing school, click here.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

A new beginning....

It was quite depressing walking round an empty semi-derelict primary school last week - seeing odd splashes of colour against collapsing ceilings, girder supports holding up walls, water dripping through ceilings and so on. The fact that we were standing in snow as well did not help.

To make it worse, I was accompanying staff who had worked in that particular building five years earlier. Memories and anecdotes were mentioned as we walked round every part of the building.
The exciting part of this particular project in the London Borough of Southwark, is that I am involved in helping the design process to rebuild and extend this dilapidated building to create a new primary school fit for the Third Millennium. Lots of challenges as the photographs show, as well as the building having listed planning status. Very close neighbours provide additional restrictions.
The design stages have started and there are real challenges in trying to adapt existing Victorian spaces to accept a wide range of teaching pedagogy's and adjacency's.... It's fun, it's thought provoking - but this old building really does deserve to be brought back to life for hundreds of local primary students.
More on this project as it develops over the next eighteen months.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Challenge and aspiration in the Heads of the Valleys

Professor David Egan
I am excited to be leading a team of associates playing a small contribution within the Heads of The Valleys Education Project (HOVEP) in Wales. Recently I attended a stakeholder engagement meeting where people really did work together to help formulate the agenda for future activities.

HOVEP is a unique partnership between the Welsh Government, local authorities, the further and higher education sectors in the Heads of the Valleys area. Its mission is to make the Heads of the Valleys a high skilled region for the 21st century. In Blaenau Gwent, (one of the two areas in HOVEP, the other being Merthyr Tydfil) this is a particularly significant goal. The closure of the steelworks and the loss of a considerable number of jobs has led to the creation of an area facing a significant number of challenges.

HOVEP will focus on every child benefiting from school, and work to ensure that they transition smoothly from primary to secondary sectors of education, with higher percentages of 16-19 students gaining from high level qualifications including English and Maths. Another fundamental aspect is to support higher numbers of 19 years olds progressing into further or higher education, whilst improving skills in the wider adult population.

What I so impressed with is the passion and dedication I have seen to work with the widest range of partners to support, challenge and add value through strengthening and deepening the impact of their current works. In this meeting representatives from almost every phase of education were there, as well as academics, local authority representatives and local employers. It will need this absolute combined commitment and determination to make a difference, including getting over some difficult issues. However, unlike some other areas, they have started and have some very clear plans, aspirations and ideas. This was not a 'sit and receive' session, but rather like the aims of the project, a 'roll your sleeves up and get involved' session where everyone had a role to play in identifying responses to some very searching topics..

I also find it encouraging that there is a significant role for academics in this project, but one with a very real understanding of the specific issues faced in this area. High quality comments giving guidance came from Emeritus Professor David Egan, Senior Policy Advisor to HOVEP and guest Speaker Professor Sir Deian Hopkin.

I just wish them all the best of luck - and am happy to be involved. I am sure I will write more from this project in the coming week and months, so... watch this space.

Curriculum Change - Michael Rosen to Mr Gove

A great open 'letter' appears in The Guardian newspaper this week, from internationally acclaimed author Michael Rosen, to the UK's Secretary of State for Education, the Right Honourable Mr Michael Gove.

It's all about the ever changing school curriculum and the news that the new curriculum guidance which was expected soon, is going to be delayed for a year.

What ever Michael Rosen writes is always engaging and captivating. The same can be said when he is working with students. As a Headteacher, he visited my school and spent the day working with my secondary students and then also with students from feeder primary schools who visited for a half day. It was just the best day with all the students fortunate enough to attend getting so much out of it. The impact was even better with the followup work undertaken by the students and guided by staff achieving the highest standards.

The 'letter' is gentle, but the points included are well made.
To read it in full, please click here:

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Stage not Age

A recent media story has been producing some interesting conversations amongst educationalists. Basically it's about a class of 12/13 year olds at the Winifred Holtby School in Hull taking their GCSE English examination more than three years early.

Many schools enter students for exams one years early. This particular English teacher recognised that this one class of students were 'unique' within the school, producing work way above their age expected standards. The fact that twenty six of them achieved A's, B'S or C's at GCSE despite their supports this view. Whilst a few may retake their exams (four got D's) the other have already started GCSE English Literature with the expectations of starting 'A Level' courses two years early at age 14/15. Fantastic.
And why not? I am a real supporter of students being able to do things, new courses, projects and exams, when they are ready, not only when they reach some specific age set arbitrarily. It is all about 'stage not age', - if they are motivated and an do it, why shouldn't they? It may be administratively inconvenient, but that's an organisational issue.
Some comments under the story have referred to the fact that they may all have got 'A's' if they had waited until they were sixteen - a more usual age for taking GCSE examinations. But if they mature enough and are capable of doing and understanding the work now, why would you ask them to wait for three years. This success may well motivate them to do more and even better, thereby becoming more aspirational about their learning and plans for the future.
Asking them to wait for years for no legitimate or logical reason is far more likely to demotivate and demoralise them. Why would anyone want to do that?
So, a massive well done to the students and well done to the school for having the confidence to allow students to learn when they are ready, not wait until they hit random age targets!
To read the full story click here.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Thoughts on Finland's Education System

Another in the series of occasional guest posts - this time by Elaine Hirsch commenting on the Finland's education system. (Elaine Hirsch is kind of a jack-of-all-interests, from education to technology to public policy, so she is currently working as a writer for various education-related sites and writing about all these things instead. She currently writes for an online school resource.)

Imagine school with shorter and fewer days in class, no bells, and teachers who go by their first names. Imagine reading in warm slippers by the fireplace between classes, and doing no more than half an hour of homework every night. This is the education experience Finish students experience from K-12 to master's degree programs, a fact which is validated through Finland scoring the highest among international school systems.

Year after year, Finland's K-12 education has been at the top of PISA's international survey results for students' academic skills, and unlike the similarly high ranking South Korea, has done so without a cram school in sight. Sadly, this is in contrast to the
United States, whose position continues to fall and consistently lags behind countries such as Slovakia and Barbados in several subjects, despite higher government spending on education.

If Finland's educational success is not due to rigorous schedules, scoring scrutiny and intense competition, what is its secret?

The results are surprising. Finland spends almost $1000 less per year per student than the United States, and many Finnish schools do not boast a great variety of extra-curricular activities or employment of the latest technology. Instead,
Finland's schools differentiate themselves through more fundamental and very basic differences.

Finnish teachers are very well regarded in society, and share equal social status to doctors. 25% of young Finns select it as their vocation, but only 10-13% are admitted to teacher training programs, due to the high volume of applicants and the caliber of those seeking to join the ranks. In the United States, the bottom third of graduates enter the teaching profession.

Money is also not the answer. Finnish graduates are drawn to teaching because it offers great job security, a respectful and comfortable environment, and a very high degree of autonomy. Teachers are encouraged to be creative and self-sufficient in their teaching, and tailor the needs to their students. Successfully following this model is easier when the country's brightest graduates are the nation's teachers.

Parents and teachers teach children from a young age the benefits of being resourceful, and those new to Finnish society are often surprised by see young children walking through the woods to school alone, and carrying their own bags. Finnish parents show a keen interest in their children's education, and collaborate with teachers regularly.

Finnish schools emphasize comfort and respect in every aspect.
Schools mimic a home environment, with comfortable furniture and wholesome free lunches. Finnish schools are not ranked against each other, and students are not streamed into special programs according to ability, but struggling students do receive extra tutoring. As there is little difference in standards from one school to the next, no schools are disadvantaged or have to cope with the issues that many urban US schools struggle with daily.

Finland's 96% graduation rate, compared to 75% in the US, means that far more students are prepared for higher education. Economic disadvantage not does prohibit college attendance, as college is free and grants are readily available. After ninth grade, Finnish students choose either an academic or vocational track, meaning they are allowed to specialize to their strengths from an early age.

Any teacher will explain that it is inaccurate to compare two countries' education systems and conclude that the systems alone are the reasons for differences. Finland enjoys a far lower crime rate, and while the country may face challenges, few countries in the developed world compare in cultural, racial and religious complexity to the United States. That being said, the United States can still learn from the Finnish experience. Respect for teachers and for learning can't be bought with money alone, and often state curriculum and bureaucracy yields poor results as a substitute for a fundamental respect and enjoyment for learning.
For comments to Elaine - please post them below and I will ensure she receives them.. Thanks.