Notes from our interior design team

2018: Where we were

Historically schools would have a shopping list of typical furniture items to choose from
that would make up the standard classroom package of 33 desks and chairs, teacher’s
desk, interactive screen and necessary storage cabinets around the perimeter of the

These low-cost packages delivered a functional set up that have not changed greatly in
around 100 years. Desks were often set out with all learners facing the front in rows and the rooms felt cramped full of large desks that were difficult to maneuver or change around. Learners were stuck at the same place for the whole day.


Often we find in school decoration that there are multiple strong colours in the room coming from furnishings, carpets and wall displays. This combination of strong colours and over-saturation of display of work was leading to over-stimulation that is not conducive to learning, especially for the learners with additional support needs.

A very good resource for use of colour and complexity in the classroom is documented in the Clever Classrooms research by the University of Salford, United Kingdom in section 5 pages 34-37.  The findings tell us that we don’t want too much or too little colour or complexity.

Rigid layout

The lack of variety in the furnishings of traditional classrooms restricts the teacher and learner’s ability to work in an environment suited to the variety of activities they are doing. Many teachers are teaching active learning but the traditional classroom is set up for didactic learning.

Teaching walls

Teaching walls have been introduced into some classrooms in an attempt to free up floor space by reducing the number of units sited around the perimeter of the room.

This introduces:

  • a gathering point around the interactive screen
  • reading corners for learners to find a quiet space to read
  • options of other types of seating 

These have been well received, however, they are only a small step towards a classroom of the future. 

Examples of two different classrooms with a teaching wall and traditional desk arrangements.

We asked our learners and teaching staff for their suggestions we received on ways to improve on our spaces and what the students would like to see in their new learning environments:

“Standing tables, high stools”

“wheelie task chairs for learners similar to the teachers”

“comfortable furniture, bean bags, sofas”

“options to move the furniture around the space easily”

“writable surfaces for collaboration”

“quiet and safe spaces for the learners with ASL to calm down and focus”

“breakout space away from the classroom”

“storage space for bags, shoes, learner and teacher’s resources”

“Adaptable and controllable lighting and heating levels”

“more vinyl floor for messy activities”

“comfortable carpets to sit on”

“large windows to see out into the external learning spaces as many Victorian schools restricted the view to the outside world”

“iPad stations ability to cast work from iPad to share up to screens”

“option to clear the room for activities such as performance, exercise and dance”

“ability to form varying group sizes and individual working space when required to suit the learner and activity.”

“more technology available to all students where one to one iPad were not in use”

The learning environment and learners with additional needs

Phoebe Caldwell, expert practitioner in Intensive Interaction works mostly with children and adults on the Autistic Spectrum.

Phoebe gave a presentation to key staff and designers at CEC aimed at the effects of design on the many autistic and learners with additional support needs (ASN) in our mainstream schools.

There are various elements in the classroom environment that have an adverse impact on autistic learners as the way in which an autistic child processes information is different and therefore these needs should be taken into consideration due to the increasing number of learners with ASN in our schools.

We have also taken on board the research of Professor Stephen Heppell,  Architecture & Design Scotland and the University of Salford which you can read more about on the Research page.

Where we are heading

Over the past year the Interior Design team have been developing new experimental
classrooms with schools that are already changing the way in which traditional didactic
teaching is delivered in our schools. The focus was to support the schools that are
already working in an active style and have a desire to change their environments
however are restricted by the traditional 33 desks and chairs style set up.

Our aim is to inspire other schools with the new learning spaces and record the benefits of the changes to help justify the increase in budget required to deliver more inspiring spaces.

Through these experimental classrooms we have taken on board all of the research and
trialled various types of furniture to create a range of areas within the classroom that
support the many autistic children we have in our main stream schools along with
providing opportunities for different zones and areas within the room that support a
wide range of needs and activities.

Options of quiet spaces, collaboration, individual working and group work provide a more inclusive approach to the learning environment. These changes provide the freedom for learners to choose where to sit and take responsibility for their own learning in a place where they feel most comfortable.

We aim to create learning spaces that offer an inclusive approach that allows all learners to find a space that suits their needs and learning style. Enables the activities planned by the teacher and offers the opportunity for team teaching, collaboration between year groups and new ways of working.

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