Importance of vision in driving school transformation

Brian Lightman, General Secretary of ASCL (2010-16)

Think back to your classroom: magnolia walls, a solitary blackboard, regimental rows of desks and chairs, and harsh strip lighting. Not only will you remember the physical environment, but also how it made you feel. For some of us that will be a positive memory, but for me it was not a particularly engaging learning experience.

Smarter-Spaces2

The education community is constantly exploring ways to create a more stimulating, engaging and positive learning experience for students, and we should be proud of what we have achieved in the last decade. But there is still so much more we can do to improve or even transform the school environment itself: design, colour, lighting...

This is an opportune moment to do so. Our more innovative schools are moving away from the idea that everything is fixed, by creating flexible learning environments where furniture and walls can be moved or removed to create a variety of spaces to facilitate different styles of learning.

I have been through the process of planning for a whole school rebuild. When I joined St Cyres School in Penarth as Headteacher in 1999, the building was at the end of its serviceable life. Leaking roofs, electrical failures and rotten windows and doors created an environment that failed to stimulate learning. Nor did it support high quality teaching. While we never allowed this to lower our expectations, the environment inevitably affected engagement and morale.

From the outset of our campaign to rebuild the school, we wanted it to be a learning community for the whole of Penarth. This drove our strategic plan. The real triggers were the scoping exercises: we ran a series of workshops with facilitators who teased out what everybody considered to be an important aspect of the school. These started with the leadership team and governors, but also included parents, pupils, staff and the wider community. The architects then began to craft designs which were shared with the whole school.

Looking back, it's not just the outcome of the project that mattered - St Cyres has just received its best ever exam results - but the process that we went through, and there are a number of things that any school can take from our journey.

1.Establish a vision. Ours galvanised staff and students behind our efforts to transform the school. Working towards this vision allowed us to secure the funding required for the project and has created a school that is a resource for the entire community.

2.Involve everybody in the process - pupils, teachers, parents, and staff. Not only are children very articulate in identifying what they do and do not like, but there are numerous learning opportunities throughout the process. Engagement also creates a sense of ownership and excitement - there was never a lunch break where pupils and staff weren't huddled in front of the latest design plans.

I am thrilled by the potential of the Smarter Spaces campaign and its growing number of supporters from across the education and design sectors. Never before have we seen such a range of voices come together to promote the importance of the learning environment, and the involvement of pupils and teachers in its design.