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'Pedagogic designer' helps create a truly different school

News | Published in TESS on 23 July, 2010 | By: Emma Seith

Council rewrites the rulebook to produce an imaginative and curriculum-led design

A scottish council has adopted an “imaginative” approach to curriculum-led school design and has invested in the services of a “pedagogic designer”.

The new James Gillespie’s High in Edinburgh, one of the 55 schools being renewed under the Scottish Government’s 1.25 billion school rebuilding programme, is not scheduled to be finished until 2015. But teachers, with the help of an educational design specialist, have already drawn up a 60- page briefing document.

The council is now looking to build a secondary that will have a gallery- style entrance; an “innovation hub” where teachers can collaborate; libraries and research areas scattered throughout; and a series of presentation spaces.

The new approach, which is also being trialled in the building of the new Portobello High in the capital, has been praised by Architecture Design Scotland, national champions for excellence in architecture.

The most important thing in any building project was a good design brief, stressed Sam Cassels, the organisation’s school design adviser. “If you don’t know what you want, how are you going to get it?” he said.

Marilyne MacLaren, Edinburgh’s education leader, said: “While the budget is the same as that of a school built from a standard template, Gillespie’s will be developed imaginatively around the principles of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE).”

Teachers were often only consulted on new school builds in the latter stages when they were asked what colour they wanted their classroom to be or how much storage space they needed, lamented Alex Wallace, the head at Gillespie’s.

This time, however, the school has spent 12 weeks working with pedagogic designer Barry Best, thinking about how teaching might evolve and how a building could support professionals. Everything from CfE to new technology and the changing role of the teacher had been considered.

Mr Wallace said: “I don’t mean any disrespect to new schools, but they tend to be better versions of the same thing and there’s nothing radically different.”

Staff at Gillespie’s wanted things to be different the second they crossed the threshold, which is why they asked jmarchitects to create a gallery- like entrance celebrating learners’ work and achievements.

One innovation, common to some new schools, is break-out spaces, serving groups of classrooms. But Mr Wallace is unimpressed. “The theory is that you move into them, but you won’t do that if there’s nothing there,” he said.

Gillespie’s has therefore opted for three of its four subject groupings (see panel) to have access to “collaborative research spaces”, capable of playing host to up to 90 learners. These would contain ICT facilities and other resources to allow pupils to collaborate, think, document and research effectively, Mr Wallace said.

Such an innovation would be in line with the way in which the role of the teacher is changing, he predicted. Staff agreed that they would increasingly act as mediators and guides, not fonts of all knowledge.

The spaces would also work well when it came to inter-disciplinary working, the staff said - something they expect to be doing a lot more of under CfE.

For this reason, the school was keen to see a theatre or auditorium constructed, capable of holding approximately 200 people, which would enable “large lead-off sessions” before pupils broke up into smaller groups.

The auditorium could also host inspirational talks from teachers and visiting speakers, stated the brief, and could be used by the community.

The “buzzy” collaborative research spaces would link with more formal and academic spaces for learning resources, catering for up to 35 learners in each of the school’s four subject groupings. The creative arts and design technology learning resources would be focused on exhibits and textiles or artefacts, but the rest would look more like traditional libraries.

And when it came to pupils presenting their work or gathering to discuss their plans, they would head for the school’s “peer presentation and debating spaces”. Mr Wallace’s vision is that these rooms will look like a “mini United Nations”.

Staff also considered their own needs in the design brief, including an “innovation hub” as a testbed for innovative pedagogic practice.

Unfortunately, by the time the school becomes a reality, Mr Wallace is unlikely to be at the helm: he is 62 now and, he jested, no provision has been made for a headteacher with a zimmer.

emma.seith@tes.co.uk

EXCELLENCE MOVES

James Gillespie’s High has organised subjects into four groupings to help deliver Curriculum for Excellence:

  • maths, science & PE (academic)
  • art, design technology & ICT, business, computing, food and health technology
  • dance, drama, music, media & PE (performance)
  • English, foreign languages, social subjects, modern studies, personal and social education, religious and moral education.

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