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Classrooms of the future

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Over the next 15 pages we explore five design models from the government's nationwide Classrooms of the Future programme, each a different take on the learning environment of tomorrow

For the Department for Education and Skills (DfES), and to some extent the local education authorities too, the Classrooms of the Future programme is about educational benefits. Has pupil attainment or behaviour improved; has school morale and the ability to recruit staff benefited; are new teaching and learning methods being implemented; is there greater community involvement in schools? The buildings are means to educational ends.

To explore the range of design strategies pursued, we have looked at five of the new classrooms in the programme, among the 12 participating education authority areas.

These projects generally go beyond the standard 55m 2classroom norm, though are mostly just one class space. Sometimes there are two classrooms, especially in primary schools where these can be a year base. These can then be opened up into a single volume, useful both for school and community use.

For such wider uses, projects often include kitchenettes or cafes, WCs and extensive storage. Usually these classrooms can be shut off from the rest of the school for stand-alone use.

Some of the classrooms do stand alone, literally, like the Telford project (p36-38). For these, the projects are often focused as much on being national models as fitting into their immediate school. Others, such as the two Sheffield schools (p28-31), are very site-specific, solving layout problems for their schools as well as providing new classrooms. Many are meant as better-class replacements for 'temporary' classrooms.

ICT (information and communication technology) is, of course, a major component, though projects vary a lot about how far to organise the classroom around the possibilities the technologies offer. Some projects focus on immediately workable ICT set-ups while others try more to simulate the ICT future.

Some installations are quite complex and it is unclear how community groups will make use of them without support technicians constantly available.

Another consistent theme across projects is sustainability, often using the form and construction of the building as a learning aid.

However, projects vary considerably in how 'future' they are in implementing energy technologies that are not (yet) cost-effective, such as photovoltaics, or technologies that are largely symbolic gestures at single-building scale, most conspicuously aerogenerators.

Classrooms geared to the sun need a southerly orientation, which may be difficult to find on an existing site; Chulmleigh (p32-33) smartly sidesteps this.

While the prefabrication chosen by some is a government 'good thing', it remains unclear where the economies of scale will come from that would make it cost-effective. Even with PII contracts bundling several schools together, the volume of work is small-scale to a prefabricator. A county-wide programme of replacing temporary classrooms might be viable.

Architectural quality is not forgotten, of course.All aspire. Some projects, though, have put particular emphasis on making the architecture part of the educational agenda - from the simple, well-made box at Witheridge (p3435) to creating a particular atmosphere at Ballifield (p30-31).

Eventual monitoring, whether of education or energy, should turn these projects into a useful controlled experiment. In the meantime, look and learn.

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