St John’s RC Primary School was completed in 2018 and is the first in Edinburgh to have the entire school fitted out with flexible furniture that is well suited to active learning.
There was excitement around the new style of learning environments proposed, and when the staff visited Lairdsland Primary in Kirkintilloch and a variety of other Edinburgh primaries including Trinity Primary School’s new learning spaces they saw the overwhelming love for the space that the learners and staff had, so they decided to introduce the active environment to their whole school.
The Headteacher, Depute headteacher and Business Manager had a vision to create an inspiring space that would accommodate a variety of learning needs and flexible teaching styles.
Now that the learners and staff have opportunities to embrace the building’s design, Headteacher Jackie Kelly gave some insight into what they’ve learned.
There is much more space than the old building, which was cramped and constrained. They now have two halls for gym and dining that can open up into a bigger space and give them the flexibility they need for assemblies and performances.
The opportunities for collaboration are endless and collaborative planning has always been a strength of the staff. Now as a result of the new building design, our primary one teachers find they do more responsive planning.
The new building has much better temperature management which is important to get right because if the room is too warm or stuffy this impacts the performance of the learners. The learners also pointed out the positive of the temperature of the building.
The school have also found that not having carpets in the classroom has worked well to keep the floor clean when doing messy work. However, learner engagement often suggests a desire for comfort so the school has a variety of cosy spaces to balance things out.
The learners told us that it’s better than the old school, it’s more modern and cool and they have more space. In the old school they felt cramped and now they feel free, they like that they can see outside throughout the building. They told us that the new building made them feel happy and at home.
An inclusive school design
Improving the experience of learners with additional support needs is important and many of the design features have inclusivity in mind. From nooks and breakout spaces to wobble stools and the choice of colour palette, there is also a sensory room which has been well received by all the children who love it.
The school have found that with the new layout and style of classrooms with different working zones and breakout spaces, learners with additional support needs are able to freely take a movement break and there are more quiet zones to be away from the group and relax. The openness of the building hasn’t been a problem for learners who benefit from movement breaks as they have so many options of places to go to learn.
A consultation with staff and learners involved discussions about the advantages and challenges in their previous school and provided the opportunity to share ideas for their new school.
There were many requests for items such as soft seating, bean bags, sofas, task chairs, comfortable carpets to sit or lay on the floor, desk to stand at, quiet spaces for concentration and every colour under the rainbow. We tried to incorporate as many of the elements that the learners and staff requested to ensure that we could provide an environment that would suit the mood of the learner, learning style, activity, and group size.
In the breakout space the team wanted to bring the outdoors inside and were inspired from the view of Arthur’s Seat and created through the introduction of trees, nook pods and greenery.
A place for staff to relax
The staff base is a large flexible space with a few cafe style seating areas and a big meeting table. For extra flexibility the staff base can be partitioned into two rooms when required.
The room is promoting staff wellbeing through biophilic design by introducing pops of different shades of green around the room.
The biophilia doesn’t stop at colour though, the large Sansevieria trifasciata plants not only look wonderful but are excellent at cleaning the air in a room.
There are also five panels of real moss on the wall, this gives an artistic and textural nod to bringing the outdoors in without the maintenance of a living plant as the moss has been treated to not grow or need watering.
Jackie believes that the amount of daylight in the building and staff base has had a positive affect on the staff at the school.
Promoting confidence and independent learning
Jackie told us how she can see that even early on, the primary two class was showing signs of independence as they learned in the new environment.
The breakout spaces seem to be really well used by the learners to split up into groups and collaborate.
The primary one class uses its breakout space for free flow learning between class and their messy play, art and construction activities which are in the breakout area.
The stairway has been really well received and used by the learners for seating and breakout.
A learner told us that they used to hate school and now, with the new design which allows them to work together with peers instead of just sitting and writing, the learner feels less isolated and is loving school.
The spaces throughout the building were designed with flexibility in mind, Jackie told us how important it is to have wheeled furniture if you want to be flexible. It’s the difference of being able to clear a room within five minutes or potentially not doing a particular activity because it takes too long to rearrange furniture and tables.
The range of furniture can support traditional layouts and active style teaching. Each year group has two different classrooms and adjacent breakout spaces which they share. This offers the teachers a choice of a formal didactic teaching layout for large project work or an active teaching layout for flexibility and independent working.
In the formal classroom – all large rectangle desks are flip top and mobile so the layout can be changed quickly and easily or cleared of furniture for activities like dance, drama and physical exercise.
In the active classroom – the space can be used for small or large group work or independent study.
In the name of flexibility there are clever storage solutions throughout the school.
The learners seem to really like the flexible furniture. It seemed their love for it also caused some competition between students as to who managed to get the best seat. Originally when I heard this I thought perhaps we should provide only seats that the learners want to sit on. However, I heard Professor Stephen Heppell talking about this competition as a positive. The idea was that if learners are so keen to get a particular seat in class they will turn up to class eager and early which surely has to be nurtured.
Each year group will have to work together to share the learning zone and maximise the use of the space. The different furniture and flexible options will offer a variety of opportunities for learners to experience in the different learning environments.
The ambition for the school was to create a forward-thinking school for the future that could offer up new opportunities to change the way that learning and teaching can be delivered using new spaces. Large breakout spaces and flexible walls allow classrooms to be open and for breakout spaces to be used as an extension to the classroom.
Each year group has a room that can be set up traditionally or can be cleared to make space.
In their other classroom are a variety of zones using furnishing like high back sofas, beanbags, high benches and individual tables to create a choice of seating options that can accommodate a range of learning styles, additional support needs and activities.
Working in a flexible shared year group space allows and encourage learners and staff to work together collaboratively, providing the opportunity to work collaboratively and independently.
“the design was spot on as the two spaces provide the right mix of styles required and the variety of furniture provides an opportunity to always find a space that they feel comfortable to work in.”
“Even as adults, we can sit in a meeting for several hours at the same chair and start to feel uncomfortable therefore we shouldn’t expect our pupils to sit in one uncomfortable plastic seat at a standard desk for an entire day and still feel engaged in the learning” – Primary 7 teacher, St John’s RC Primary School
Gender neutral toilets
I was keen to hear how the learners felt about going from girls and boys toilets to more open gender neutral toilets.
The design of the bathrooms has a central cloakroom/washing area adjoining two rooms of cubicles; one either side. To access the cubicle block you don’t go through a closed door or have to look out for gender signage, the children walk in and out freely.
Inside the cubicle blocks individual privacy is kept to a maximum while the openness to the washroom allows the space to be passively supervised which minimises any bullying that can occur in these types of spaces. The learners told us that there is now less disruption in the toilets.
Jackie told us that the staff and learners have been fine about the change, it was far less controversial than expected. The school have embraced the idea understanding that not having these style bathrooms can cause anxiety and stress for gender neutral learners.
The nursery class
Layout plans for the classes