Scottish school closures – the importance of school buildings & student outcomes

Following on from the closure of 17 schools in Edinburgh over building safety, Dr Pam Woolner, Newcastle University, explains what her research has found about the relationship between school buildings and learning:

“Essentially, there is reasonably consistent evidence demonstrating a positive relationship between school building quality and student outcomes, including attainment. On average, good buildings house good teachers who educate good students who get good results.

What is more difficult is understanding why.

To begin to answer this question involves tracing the many possible ways that a setting might affect the learning of students. The evidence for direct impact of the physical environment on learning is limited.

Studies have shown that certain environmental factors, such as noise and poor air quality, can cause detrimental effects on learning itself. Such evidence suggests the importance of ensuring schools are adequate, but we need to look beyond these direct effects on learning to appreciate the wider, but more complex, effects that the school setting can have.

In addition to any direct impacts on actual learning processes, the physical learning environment might make a difference through altering students’ behaviour, their attitudes and, importantly, through affecting the teaching and learning activities, effectively the teaching, that they experience.

Research shows that the quality of a school building is noticed and has an impact on student attitudes and staff morale. The suitability of the design for the educational activities is also key: the space will support some activities and hinder others, so it’s important to have a space that coheres with the needs and aims of the school, enabling effective practices rather than constraining them.”

Reviews of the evidence (both free to access):

Higgins, S., Hall, E., Wall, K., Woolner, P., McCaughey, C. (2005) The Impact of School Environments: A literature review. London: Design Council. Download here.

Woolner, P.and Hall, E. (2010). Noise in Schools: A Holistic Approach to the Issue International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 7(8): 3255-3269.

Other papers:

Woolner P, McCarter S, Wall K, Higgins S. (2012) Changed learning through changed space: When can a participatory approach to the learning environment challenge preconceptions and alter practice? Improving Schools 15(1), 45-60.

Woolner, P and Tiplady, L. (2016) Adapting School Premises as Part of a Complex Pedagogical Change Programme. Presented ECER, 2 – 5 September, Porto, Portugal. Download here. Also published a chapter: In: Stadler-Altmann,U, ed. (English) Learning Environment. Educational and Architectual Views on Schoolbuildings and Classrooms. (German) Lernumgebungen. Erziehungswissenschaftliche und architekturkritische Perspektiven auf Schulgebäude und Klassenzimmer. Opladen/Berlin/Toronto: Barbara Budrich, pp.69-81.

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