Stairways to heaven? Chris Abbott visits a very special learning space in Denmark (Photos: Claus Witfelt)
Ørestad Gymnasium: a source of inspiration for new schools all over the worldIt’s the staircase you notice first. As you walk through the front entrance of Ørestad Gymnasium, you see it towering ahead, curving all the way up to the top of the building, which looks from the outside like just another office block in a fast-growing suburb of Copenhagen.
A new, driverless light-rail system will get you there in 20 minutes from the city centre, and many of the students travel from even further afield to attend their school. Now that might be a familiar situation in the UK but it is very unusual in Denmark.
There are lots of other differences from the UK too. Very little work is on display, and the interior feels more like a university than a school. Text books are banned, as agreed by the teachers. No uniforms of course, and the students call the teachers by their first names.
Students choose who to work with and where
There are a few circular pods to be used as classrooms; but most of the building is open-plan and contains a variety of different group study areas. Students choose who to work with and where; with a favoured spot being the circular roof of one of the learning pods, well equipped with floor cushions and popular with students, laptops to hand and earphones attached. Birthdays are announced in large notices on the stairwell.
'A favoured spot: the circular roof of one of the learning pods'Open-plan buildings don’t always lend themselves well to the necessary if occasional formal teaching. There are some areas with walls and glass screens, though far fewer of these than there are open-plan areas. It is interesting to see, too, that Danish teachers are just as resourceful as their UK counterparts: no whiteboards were provided in many areas as it was assumed that all teaching would be through technology; but the teachers found they could write on the glass screens with markers, and use them as a board.
The combination of a series of circular pods (lockers are in circular pods too) in a rectangular building leads to some odd-shaped areas too, with teachers finding some of them difficult to use with no spot from which to speak to the whole group.
The school is open from 8am to 3.40pm; there is no formal registration although students are asked to clock in and out. They receive their work assignments and the response to these through the school administration system, which is the same one used by all schools across Denmark (there is no market for school admin products here). Instead of school lunches there is a coffee bar selling high-quality Danish open sandwiches and other food; the decision was taken to make the food so attractive that students would not migrate to the shopping centre burger bars just across the road.
'The big staircase connects everyone'
‘Lockers are in circular pods too’The school has become very famous, and has been a source of inspiration for new schools all over the world (including those in the UK's Building Schools for the Future programme) but what is it actually like to study there? We asked Sara Najaaraq Warming, a journalism student at Ørestad Gymnasium.
"I think that the most important difference between Ørestad and other schools is that we do not use tangible books," she said. "We read and use all our school material at computers, which means that all assignments and notes are written at computers.
"The open plan is fantastic because it makes the school bright and connects all the students. The big staircase that runs from the ground floor to the roof connects everyone because all students have to use it to change rooms. This makes a good opportunity to meet other people from different classes and grades.
"The open plan makes you feel that this school is special. Sometimes you actually forget that this is a school only because of the special architecture – the open plan."
"It's not just the architecture that Sara loves; it's also "the way we learn". Because there are no books, and the technology is embedded, there is a different quality. "I think the architecture and the IT connect," she explains. "Both things are modern and therefore fit with each other."
'Sometimes you miss some personality'
But the approval is not total: "Sometimes the architecture can be a bit too untouched. There are actually no real colours or real personality. The school is made to look good for other people to see and not for us to enjoy, and that can be a bit annoying. We are the ones who attend this school. I still love the school's architecture because it is so different and special but sometimes you miss some personality.
"We are allowed to use the Internet for Facebook, Netflix, email, etc, but, of course, it is prohibited in classes. Unfortunately it is pretty difficult not to open Facebook or something when you are sitting in front of your computer screen in every lesson, therefore it does happen from time to time that you open a new site and click at the Facebook icon…"
Ørestad Gymnasium attracts a lot of visitors, and regular tours are provided. Luminaries such as the Crown Prince of Denmark and the Danish prime minister have held meetings there, and students are used to the international interest.
Is it a model which could be replicated elsewhere? Much seems to be working at Ørestad Gymnasium and, perhaps, given enough funding to do the job properly, this really is the school of the future… Now where have we heard that phrase before?