Debbie Alcock, of Entrust, talked to Capita architectural expert Paul Dawson about how schools have been affected by Covid-19, the challenges that they face and the opportunities in 2021.
DA: What changes have you seen over recent months, as schools have had to adapt to new ways of working?
PD: The main change we’ve seen is that schools are having to use their spaces differently. They’re having to rethink where lessons take place and how to segregate year groups, to review how they use communal spaces to prevent mass gatherings, and to really consider how the learning environment supports pupils’ health and wellbeing.
Schools have had to try to find space to support teaching in bubbles and for mass testing. They’ve had to convert offices for classroom teaching, for example, and for remote teaching when bubbles need to self-isolate.
Common issues that schools have had with their buildings have been narrow corridors and limited entrances and exits to support the one-way systems recommended to reduce transmission of Covid-19.
We know that being outdoors and having good ventilation indoors reduce the spread of the Coronavirus, but the layout of many schools doesn’t allow for unrestricted air flow. In response, some schools have opened windows or asked pupils to spend breaks outside at a time of year when it’s not suitable or sustainable.
DA: What’s been the main challenge for schools?
PD: The biggest challenge has been protecting pupils’ and staff members’ wellbeing. According to the Government’s recent State of the Nation 2020 report, there are more pupils who are experiencing behavioural problems and whose wellbeing has been affected over the past year – they need more support and to feel safe, inspired and nurtured. And staff wellbeing has also declined, according to a study by the charity Education Support.
Good design isn’t just about aesthetics; it’s also about how places work, how they make us feel and support our mental health. During this pandemic and its ensuing lockdowns, the design of the places we live in has become more important than ever. We’ve been limited in where we can go and therefore the places where we spend most of our time need to make us feel good, happy and stress-free. It’s the same for schools.
DA: What can schools do to overcome some of these challenges?
PD: Children are affected by their environments. It’s our job to make sure that classrooms and other learning spaces make them feel welcome, secure, engaged and ready to learn. The school environment should be organised yet flexible and responsive to their changing needs.
Now is a great time for schools to review how they use their existing space, how the learning environment effects their pupils’ and staff members’ performance and wellbeing, and how they could use their space better.
Pupils spend 180 days a year in school, and staff members are there even more. Both groups spend so much time in school that it’s important that the space is fit for purpose and supports their wellbeing. The space you’re in can have a huge impact on your wellbeing and can influence your mood — for example, natural light can reduce anxiety, a tidy space can encourage better behaviour, and crowded areas can create discomfort.
So, schools could consider creating smaller, quieter areas where pupils can relax and get away from the hustle and bustle. More inviting spaces can encourage pupils to sit and chat — and to share their thoughts and emotions.
Being outdoors improves your mental health and schools should consider making their outdoor space more appealing and usable (Gov.uk, 2020). There are many studies that show that regular ‘green time’ reduces stress, anxiety and depression, producing significant improvements in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, learning ability, academic performance, creativity and mental, psychological and emotional wellbeing.
Moving around school can often cause stress for pupils, so schools should consider mapping their current curriculum to their space and consider how pupils move through the building. They may find, for example, that an office may serve better as a classroom, or vice versa.
It’s also a good idea to make sure that staff members have enough space to take breaks. An oasis of calm away from pupils allows them to talk to their peers and exchange views, advice and feedback.
DA: How will reviewing the use of space create better outcomes for schools?
PD: The physical and social environment in which staff and pupils spend a high proportion of every weekday may have profound effects on their physical, emotional and mental health as well as affecting their attainment (Public Health England, 2014).
Schools are a vital physical space in which children make human connections and learn social skills. Strong social skills build a sense of community among students and are an important source of a school’s culture, ethos and values, which in turn support better learning outcomes.
Many schools set their sights on new-builds and extensions, but it’s much more cost effective to reimagine and refurbish your existing space to meet your new needs. With subtle alterations, you can eliminate challenges such as cramped spaces, a lack of natural light and airflow, and poor acoustics.
When you review your space, you can ensure appropriate age progression through the school and that the learning environment is suitable for pupils and their key stage. You can also promote stress-free and safe movement for pupils and teachers around the school, and make sure that you have the right external facilities for play, sport and physical education. You can make small changes that create a modern and suitable environment for staff members and a professional and engaging experience for visitors.
It’s also a good opportunity to reduce your maintenance liability in terms of cost and time to a minimum.
DA: What opportunities do you see for schools in 2021?
PD: Schools shouldn’t just revert to how it was before the pandemic. Now’s the time for them to seize the moment and review how they use their spaces. There’s more government funding available this year to improve school buildings, and schools should take advantage of that.
The Condition Improvement Fund was established to help schools to improve the condition of their learning environments and to make small expansions. However, many don’t apply because staff members are too busy or unsure how to best represent the school’s needs in bidding.
The Government has announced further new funding for school repairs and building works. It has set aside £1bn for 50 large projects — the first round of which is planned as a 10-year programme. There will also be an extra £560m made available for upgrades and repairs to schools for the next academic year — and a previously announced £200m for improving further education colleges will be brought forward.
We’ve realised over the last year how important the outdoors and the environment are to us. This is an opportune time to start the conversation around working towards carbon zero. It’s a great topic to discuss with your pupils as you show them how their school is contributing to saving the planet.
Schools should consider how Salix funding could support them to achieve this. Salix provides 100% interest-free loans to schools that undertake energy efficiency improvements. The loan is paid back using the savings produced by reduced energy bills and supports more than 120 different types of energy-efficient technologies such as LED lighting, boilers, heating and insulation.
To find out how we can help you to review how you use your space and apply for available funding, get in touch.
Debbie Alcock, Business Development Manager, at Entrust & Paul Dawson, Development Officer, at Entrust