Bob HarrisonToshiba consultant Bob HarrisonA  report from research unit Futurelab and Toshiba warns that unless educationists step up the push for transforming learning, new schools could miss the mark for children in England. “Despite the best efforts of the Government and its agencies there is still a danger we will have 20th century schooling in buildings created for the 21st century,” warns consultant Bob Harrison.

“While there is compelling evidence that improved buildings and spaces can raise achievement, the full benefits of Building Schools for the Future and the Primary Capital Partnership will be lost unless we harness technology to transform learning.” “Transforming Schools for the Future? A collection of provocation papers”, was launched at the Building Schools Exhibition and Conference (BSEC) in Manchester this week, a timely reminder for BSEC visitors that BSF is about transforming learning and teaching, not just buildings.

The report features contributions from Futurelab senior researcher Tim Rudd, Professor Rosemary Luckin of the London Knowledge Lab, Nick Page, development manager with EdisonLearning, and Bob Harrison, Toshiba consultant who works on the National College for School Leadership’s BSF and PCP leadership programs and with Becta.

A concern that is consistent across all contributions is the gap between the thinking of the people who are creating the schools and that of the learners who will inhabit them.

Tim RuddFuturelab chief researcher Tim RuddFuturelab’s Tim Rudd warns that despite the explicit expectations of transformation and innovation in the BSF/PCP agendas and The Children’s Plan and Every Child Matters, “learners’ voice”, perhaps the most potent element in the stakeholder mix, is still curiously muted – “post hoc” as he puts it.

“We must move away from this culture of ‘tick box’ consultation that too often masquerades as ‘learner voice’ activity, “ he warns, “as it will detract from the marvellous opportunities that are presented to offer new and dynamic learning experiences that can help raise self esteem, responsibility and engagement amongst learners.

“Both PCP and BSF offer great opportunities to place learners at the heart of educational process. The potential for schools to model transformative approaches, pedagogies and relationships by placing learners at the very heart of the design process, can assure the greater choice and voice that personalisation demands.”

'If transformation is to occur, the time has to be now'

Nick Page urged immediatge action: “In the main we are still building ‘new old schools’, operating the same systems and processes that we, our parents and even our grandparents may have experienced. If transformation is to occur, the time has to be now, and we are the people who have to move beyond the debate to take action and bring about the necessary transformation…

“Of more concern is that we are seeing in certain parts of the country that the young people we serve are increasingly rejecting what we in education have to offer. Worryingly, we are at risk of losing touch with increasing numbers of these young people. “

Another concern was supporting the workforce in a time of continuing change. Rosemary Lucking used a technology analogy: “Teachers have a vitally important role in the realisation of the transformative power of technology, but this role is continually evolving and teachers need support to operate effectively in a ‘perpetual beta [test mode]’ world.”

Following his exploration of research into how children learn and the implications of technology for learning, Bob Harrison says: “Whilst we clearly cannot jump to the conclusion that the whole system of education should change on the basis of these arguments, currently it is clear that we are not witnessing any significant departure in the way buildings are designed and learning is organised and approached.

'Technology chasm' emerging for young people

“However, the changing nature of learning and interaction in society surely needs greater attention when thinking about the future of education and the learning spaces we may need to design to account for such changes. If we take the time to listen to young people, it is not difficult to understand the chasm that is emerging between the way many of them learn informally and the technologies they use to do so in their everyday lives, and how this compares to their experiences in classrooms and lecture theatres across the country.”

The report identified five key challenges:

  • “What more do we need to know about the relationship between how people learn and the use of digital technologies to enable us to design, plan, prepare and construct learning environments which will enable learners to be prepared for 21st century life?
  • “What small steps can we currently take to use technology in a more innovative and creative way to develop synergy between formal and informal learning?
  • “How do we create a climate for the education workforce to innovate and be creative within a system which is ‘internally consistent and self sustaining’?
  • “How do we create the capacity for thinking within the complex and pressurised process of current redesign programmes?
  • “How do we ensure we spend the enormous investment wisely and that it will support learning transformation?”

And the challenges are followed by a grim warning: “If we fail to come up with answers to such questions and find more innovative solutions we are unlikely to deliver the schools, or learning spaces, for the future and therefore may see a poor return on our investment and condemn this marvellous opportunity to failure.”

Futurelab chairman Lord David Puttnam, in his report foreword and overview, had encouraging and radical words for the BSF/PCP communities: “To really mobilise the transformational opportunities requires a concerted and continuous effort by all those involved, from heads and governors, pupils and parents, local authorities and politicians, through designers and architects. Every single stakeholder involved in the delivery of these programmes needs to understand the opportunity they are being offered.

“However, we also need to exhibit other qualities. Firstly, we need to break free of our traditional and institutionalised ways of thinking, to think more creatively and to innovate in order to bring about alternative and more fitting solutions to the educational needs for the future. Secondly, we need bravery - the courage to explore new opportunities, to follow these through with conviction and to develop models of learning and designs that are different and more appropriate than what have gone before, and this can mean challenging our own assumptions. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, we need belief - the belief that every one of us can bring about transformation as an active change agent through exercising our democratic right to be involved with the development of services that affect us and, most importantly, the young people we serve.

“…When we hear stories of children or schools who are thought to be underachieving, often it is our instinct to lay the blame on the pupils themselves, their families, or the teachers, yet we seldom ask if the educational offering we’re presenting to those children is out of keeping with their needs and the realities of their day-to-day lives... The BSF and PCP programmes represent an opportunity to develop systems and spaces for the future that will enable us to do exactly that. We simply cannot afford to miss this opportunity to transform education.”

More information

"Transforming Schools for the Future?", from Futurelab and Toshiba, can be downloaded from the Futurelab website