Building Experiences

Improving the School Environment

A Design-Led Approach involving Pupils and Staff

This idea is for School Managers who wish to carry out curriculum development in one or more subject areas whilst at the same time improving the teaching and learning environment. The approach can be used as a stimulus to achieve a number of internal organisational objectives and can lead to the enhancement and development of other external links and networks.

Continuous improvement of both the fabric of the school and its curriculum is the principle behind the approach that needs to be sustained and be incremental through School Development Planning.

The programme of activities described in this paper was originally conceived within the format of a concentrated week of activities. This concept of Arts Weeks, Science Weeks etc is well established in schools, and seems appropriate for this particular programme. However, there are no reasons why the programme couldn’t be scheduled over a term, in a subject area. The content could be easily slotted into a number and variety of National Curriculum subjects by individuals and groups who wish to undertake the exciting prospect of curriculum development using the immediate surroundings of the school. The approach is designed to work in any school and could be used as a means of drawing upon the rich expertise available from outside of the school. It also thus offers opportunities for promoting and demonstrating examples of lifelong learning.

At the heart of the idea is a programme of activities based on pupils observing, recording and evaluating a wide range of aspects of their school’s buildings and grounds. This leads to the identification of a specific design or problem-solving exercise from these surroundings.

It is summarised by the diagram a - Programme Menu for Built Environment Activity Week* – where Core Activities, Base Topics and Additional Topics are connected by pathways for learning and deeper understanding. Subject abbreviations are contained in boxes. Hence an exploration of C5, Features of Rooms can provide opportunities in English and Design & Technology, along with others depending on interests and expertise. Work from this starting point can lead onto opportunities for study of B13 / 14 / 15 / 16, which in turn lead onto studies in the areas represented by A5 / 6 / 7 and so on.


The Menu offers an easy guide through a design-led exploration of a building. It illustrates the connectedness of form and function, the impact of these on activity and, how we feel and relate to our surroundings. It offers an approach that identifies opportunities for design solutions that can then be the focus of activity for improvement.

The Week of Activities is designed to introduce pupils to a wide range of aspects of the built environment through the exploration, in detail of their own buildings and grounds. Such an exploration will include looking at the structures and materials used, how elements of the building are designed to function in a number and variety of ways, how to make use of models and plans, how spaces are used for different activities, how they are fitted out and furnished etc.

This carefully structured exploration of a familiar environment builds upon what pupils know and can already do and can foster a greater awareness, a sense of belonging through participation and hence the likelihood of a greater sense of responsibility for these surroundings.

As a result of the Activity Week opportunities for design solutions as diverse as the redesign of a school-entrance hall, developing a Pupils Pack for Newcomers or coherent school-signage might be arrived at.

Where this Programme has been implemented it has followed the following pattern:

  1. An initial consultation with the architect and the Senior Management Team. This provides an opportunity for highlighting aspects of the school’s accommodation that might benefit from a fresh design-led approach. It can also provide the starting point for consideration of how the approach can be integrated into the School Development Plan.

  2. An INSET session for staff, providing a briefing session for the Activity Week.

  3. Implementation of the Activity Week

  4. Follow-up, including exhibition / celebration of design solutions.

  5. Prioritising through School Development Planning of design solutions.

  6. Their implementation / monitoring / evaluation

………with all of the above as a continuous, incremental cycle of school improvement.

It is envisaged that once a school begins operating using the sort of approach advocated in this paper, it will carry on examining itself with a view to self-improvement.

The programme described above has been developed by Annette Hards, an architect based in Kent. She has drawn on her experience as an architect, mother of school-age children, Parent-Governor and provider of educational opportunities for both pupils and staff, to devise this design-led approach to school improvement. The programme has been supported by Kent Education Business Partnership, Kent Advisory Service and the Construction Industry Training Board Curriculum Centre.

Annette Hards, The Hards Partnership


Building Experiences     Site Design: Wills-Fleming