Of tides and rock pools: a growing awareness of the school building beyond the classroom

The first time I came to understand the design of a school to be of any significance to its staff and students was when I took a job as a specialist reading teacher in a primary school. I’d already worked as a class teacher in three other schools and visited many more but aside from the organisation of the classroom and seating plans for students, I didn’t consciously ever think about the effects of the design of rooms and of spaces in those schools on students and staff. But I felt it. I know that I felt it because years later, I can instantly remember my feelings about the individual rooms and spaces where I worked. And now, after several years of working with architects and designers and studying theories and philosophies of education and design, I have come to understand far more about the significance of those feelings and how to draw on them to improve those spaces for school staff and for the students who use them. 

Starting a new job as a specialist reading teacher required additional training in a programme called Reading Recovery. The local authority were offering funding to train a Reading Recovery teacher for every school and my new school didn’t want to miss out. Reading Recovery is essentially a programme for children who were close to the age of six and not yet confident as readers or writers. Originally developed by the clinical psychologist and theorist Marie Clay, from New Zealand, the programme I joined had been introduced into the UK in response to a national  curriculum that was making increasingly heavy demands on the children in Year One to access all kinds of learning through reading and writing. 

The Reading Recovery programme turned out to be so much more than it’s name suggested with activities that required getting to know the children, valuing their strengths and establishing trust and openness as a way of guiding them to make quick progress. Marie Clay said that the one thing she regretted about Reading Recovery was the name she had chosen, Reading Recovery, since part of the daily, individually-tailored session was taken up by the child writing a meaningful sentence in their exercise book. This meant that a solid surface for writing was needed and, as instructed, new Reading Recovery teachers were also charged with procuring an adult-sized desk, two adult-sized chairs so that we could sit alongside the child when reading with them at the same height as them. We also needed enough space for a freestanding whiteboard, at which the child would stand in the middle of each lesson, to manipulate magnetic letters into words.

It was the first day of my new job in a school I’d never worked in before, in a part of the city that I’d never visited. My unfamiliarity with everything about my new workplace left every detail of the building imprinted on my brain. And at the time I didn’t realise what an advantage it was to see everything with such fresh eyes.

I was shown to a small room with no windows but two doors, one leading into an office occupied by the Assistant Head and the other onto a green-tiled, echoing stairwell between two floors. The AH could only reach her office through my own little room, unless she chose to use a second door in her office that would emerge directly in front of the whiteboard of the Year Six classroom. Even though my new room had no windows, I was immediately grateful for the natural light that came through a skylight in the centre of the high ceiling. This allowed me to turn off the buzzing strip lighting overhead without being plunged into darkness. I also found a small lamp that made the room feel cosy and illuminated the pages of the reading books even on the darkest of days. The school premises manager turned out to be friendly and helpful and managed to find me the desk and chairs that I needed. That left it up to me to assemble a range of books and to decorate the bare, white walls of the room with beautiful illustrations from past-their-best books I found in the school that were destined for the skip. In keeping with the ethos of Reading Recovery, I didn’t want to have any distracting words on the walls, no instructions or exhortations to the children to be an exemplary learner or a magnificent person.  

Once I began working with children and started to understand the challenges they faced, I realised that this working space wasn’t just a room but also served the function of a protective bubble. To read aloud and to compose and create a sentence in such a performative way was very exposing and it was important for each child to feel protected from the eyes and ears of their classmates. With space to do this and an understanding that mistakes could help them to learn, they felt comfortable enough to wrestle with difficult letters and words and bring the whole force of their concentration to bear on a single sentence. 

When I understood the value of providing this protective bubble, the bane of my work-life quickly became the two sets of doors leading from the room, which were heavy and had a tendency to slam when there was a wind whipping up the stairs from the playground. The AH was a very experienced, warm-hearted woman whose life in and out of school was stressful enough to prompt her to regularly nip up to the roof for a cigarette break. On her return, however, her kindness meant that she always felt moved to acknowledge the efforts of whichever child was reading with me. Unfortunately, the sight of an adult looming over them with words of encouragement and praise often stopped these very small, tentative readers in their tracks. Even worse, the slamming of the two doors was jarring and but if I left the door to the stairwell open to avert this and to get some air into the room, a merry band of children on their way somewhere would often divert us again. It would be unusual for passing children not to feel moved to greet me and whoever I was working with, which would inevitably disrupt the reader’s concentration and require the task to begin anew. 

Sensitised to the consequences of these disruptions, my appreciation of the importance and precariousness of working spaces in schools beyond the classroom began to grow. At the beginning and end of each lesson, I’d walk with the child to or from their Year One portacabin in the playground. During these journeys I started to notice aspects of school spaces that I’d never encountered before in my cosy nest of a classroom. 

It felt a little like being on the ocean floor. Children would scuttle crab-like in pairs across the hall to deliver the lunch register to the office, each determined to keep their grip on one corner of it. Classroom assistants would be working with a child or a small group of children from their class at a makeshift desk outside their classrooms or in a corner of the hall. Sometimes, unfortunately for them, their location would be far too close to the toilets. If if they were working by the hall, shoals of children would suddenly appear for assembly or PE lessons. My own workspace was an extraordinary luxury in contrast with theirs.

This was an ecosystem beyond the walls of the classrooms that I had never experienced before and with my new perspective I could begin to see how much these spaces and their uses impacted on the working patterns of adults and the experiences of individual children. I realised for the first time how pressing the demand is to capture a small group room, to which teaching assistants could bring a group of children for a lesson. Certain classes and staff members took priority in securing these most precious of rooms, although it wasn’t always obvious to me why that should be. As I watched and learned, I became even more aware of how fortunate I was to have a room to work in at all. And even if it didn’t offer complete visual and auditory protection to children who were at such a delicate place in their reading lives, I was far luckier than most. As a class teacher I hadn’t ever thought about where Teaching Assistants took children to practise reading. I’d just assumed that they’d find a good spot to settle. Now I was aware of how life ebbed and flowed through the school, following the movements of the school timetable in almost tidal patterns, and how difficult it could be to swim against that tide when you were looking for a protective rockpool. 

As the months became a year and then two and three, I became even more protective of the space around the children while they read, witnessing every day how fragile their concentration could be. Learning to read needs to be practised aloud and mistakes are obvious. The last thing you need when doing something new and difficult is to have other people straying into your space.  

Eventually I left the school and my work took me along a new path, advocating for families and working with schools with care-experienced children. During this period, I recognised that these children — once described to me with heartfelt emphasis by an inspiring Teaching Assistant as “these precious children” — also needed protected spaces in which to grow. These were spaces made precious with care, where they felt safe and where they could find a calmness in themselves if they were challenged by a situation in the school. The equally inspiring head teacher of the same infants school told me that this Teaching Assistant could make anywhere feel safe for the children who needed her, even the playground. But also, importantly, the head had recognised the value of her staff and given this particular staff member a room in the school that she was encouraged to make her own: a space where every child who needed her knew that she could be found. Similar encounters in other schools and collaborative work with imaginative and sensitive educational psychologists led me to recognise the significance of the physical school building to the needs of students and staff and how their daily lives can be enhanced or undermined by their interactions with it. 

Many care-experienced children have experienced trauma in their young lives and need spaces where their well-being is the primary objective of that space. They might benefit from therapies that take place in these to rebuild a trust in adults and a sense of self. As with the young readers, a protective bubble is sometimes needed to allow them to re-establish their confidence and to face difficult challenges.  

As the fragility and power of small, protected rooms in schools became increasingly clear to me, I was lucky to have the opportunity to combine the lessons I had learned through my own practice with a deeper inquiry into the history, theory and practice of school design and architecture. I researched theories relating to architecture and the influence of lighting, ventilation and sound on learning; I became interested in humanist and participatory design and the significance of the human body in school spaces; I worked alongside designers and architects to develop a reading nook, where children could feel more protected as they read. As I encountered new ideas and developed my own, I became more and  more convinced of the profound effect that the organisation and design of school buildings can have on everyone who uses them.  

In recognition of the Teaching Assistant who talked so movingly about the precious children she worked with, noting their fragility but also their potential and how much she valued them, I set about creating this blog which I hope is well-characterised by the name Precious Spaces

Spaces in school can be precious because they are in high demand or because they have qualities that may be unexpectedly valuable, such as being hidden from view. They might be exquisitely designed or transformed by an unusual thoughtfulness and care. But above all, the preciousness of these spaces is recognisable in the regard the school community has for the value of the people who use them: their value to students, to members of staff and to the school community as a whole.

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