In March this year, Ecophon organised a case study visit to the recently opened New Line Learning Academy, Maidstone. Far removed from the traditional designs we often see in the UK’s school estate, NLL is 9,463 sqm (GIA), and is designed to accommodate 1110 pupils. The concept for the building was provided by forward thinking educationalist and current Head Teacher, Guy Hewitt, who had the challenge of inspiring pupils from two existing, but failing schools, with a high truancy rate, to raise their academic standards and improve their social and emotional skills. The visit was introduced by Howard Pye of Jestico & Whiles, the architect who had the job of interpreting Guy’s vision and was led by NLL’s, Gigi Luscombe.
Being immediately drawn into the building by a large timber-clad portico, you find yourself welcomed by a glass fronted reception with a view into the building’s main atrium, referred to as the “main heart space”. Within this versatile area, which serves, not least of all, as a cafeteria shared by students and teachers alike, you are struck by the large amount of natural daylight flooding into every corner. This is an immediate and obvious design success, aesthetically, physiologically and sustainably; which is accentuated by a clever use of columns on the first floor gallery walk way; giving you the sense of walking through a Roman Courtyard. The play of light and shading connects you with the outdoors and provides constant variety in tones of white and shaded grey as the sky above moves and changes with the seasons. This has been cleverly mirrored by the colours incorporated into the Ecophon Wall Panels, which include a vibrant red by way of contrast. An essential edition, as explained by acoustician, Paul Marks of SKM Enviros, to provide a non reverberant atmosphere in such a large volume. This was commented on by visitor, Robert Conetta, a research fellow in the Acoustics Research Centre at London South Bank University, who found the ambiance and comfortable acoustics pleasantly agreeable for such a large challenging space.
Neil Miller, Area Sales Manager, Ecophon, worked closely with Jestico + Whiles to ensure a successful outcome. ‘New Line Learning Academy provided a number of interesting acoustic challenges, particularly in the atrium, referred to as the main heart space, where a large number of wall panels were required. Howard and I were mindful of utilising standard size panels, whilst incorporating a design which would minimise waste and offer ease of installation; especially as a number of panels are installed at 5 to 7m above ground level. It was also a great opportunity to incorporate colour (Texona) in such an eye catching design. We also had success incorporating our Texona Wall Panel System with back lighting to great effect in the ground floor teaching spaces. Here the module sizes were mirrored with Solo panels (acoustic rafts) in the ceiling.”
The excellent use of natural daylight continues into the “learning plazas”; designed to accommodate 120 pupils, three groups of 40, simultaneously, including a mezzanine. These areas are perhaps the most intriguing and controversial. The Academy has a large sports hall, drama rooms and very state of the art science lab and home economics room; but the learning plazas are by far the biggest move away from the traditional image of the classroom. Once again, creating the right acoustic environment for good speech intelligibility is a challenge, given the very high ceilings, large volume, hard surfaces (one wall of floor to ceiling glazing) and large numbers of students, potentially creating high levels of background noise (measured in one plaza on our visit in excess of 70dB).
The effect of noise on pupils’ behaviour and attainment is complex, depending not only on classroom conditions and individual factors concerning the child, but also on the learning task being undertaken. Demands on pupils’ cognitive abilities and behaviours increase significantly in secondary schools. Pupils are taught by subject specialists, move classrooms, may have less opportunity for individual support and are exposed to different pedagogic approaches. Consequently, evidence from many research projects both in the UK and abroad, indicate that secondary school children are disadvantaged by poor acoustic environments.
It was noted by Emma Greenland, Acoustician and open-plan education specialist, WSP, that the plaza worked satisfactorily (acoustically), for critical listening, when all students took part in a plenary session that was witnessed; with the mezzanine unoccupied, and with no other activities in surrounding teaching zones. This could confidently be maintained when the space is organised by a single teaching team, as opposed to several teachers operating independently. The specially designed banana seating helps to minimise the distance between teacher and listeners, which is important when adjacent spaces are used for working at tables or computers at the periphery of the plaza. They are not as effective at providing acoustic screening though, when students sit in their preferred position, at the very top.
It is apparent that Plaza style teaching environments are less forgiving and require close and careful cooperation between the architect, acoustician, manufacturer, contractor and school (pedagogy and scheduling) in order to make them work at their envisaged, optimal level.
There is no doubt though that NLL is inspiring pupils to greater efforts, as evidenced by improved attendance and GCSE results.
In addition to this, last week Deputy Principal, Gigi Luscombe, shared her insight including their aspirations and challenges with the EDUnet goup.
Gigi set the scene by stating “Qualifications are necessary but no longer sufficient”. At NLL they are determined to have balanced emotionally rounded students, where attainment with well being are embedded.
Use of Space: Here more space is provided than conventional classrooms which is intended to allow for some choice of workspace. Space the students might like and recognise in a more domestic context. There are clear intentions with the Plaza format to develop student engagement and direct experience whilst fostering group work and impacting the students mood positively.
The school is directly working with the “Lifespace” model as a 5 year study. They also intend to offer accredited University modules instead of full degree courses.
Interestingly building the “Plaza” type school here was 20% cheaper in capital costs than a conventional school.
The EDUnet group hosted by Shane Cryer the Education Concept Developer in the UK, left with a fascinating insight into how these buildings function in reality. It is clear that teachers and learners and interacting in a different way. This requires a change management approach for teachers coming from a conventional school background and also a coordinated approach with their fellow colleagues sharing the Plaza space. It appeared that careful preplanning for teachers and a clear understanding of the groups objectives and goals for students to assist them to remain engaged and task focused. Then passive management may be possible with positive student behaviour.