Student voice and the architecture of change

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Mapping the territory

A Report to Research Committee 07/06

Julia Flutter and Jean Rudduck



February 2005

Student Voice and The Architecture of Change: Mapping the Territory
Julia Flutter and Jean Rudduck
1. Background to the study
The development of interest in listening and responding to the student voice has been well documented (Rudduck and Flutter, 2003; Fletcher, 2004) and it is clear that the growth of this movement has made an impact on educational practice both within the UK and internationally. Interest in the effect of the school environment on students' learning has also come to the foreground in recent years and research has now established that the physical environment can play an important role. Studies have demonstrated that the school environment has an important bearing on the effectiveness of teaching and learning (Earthman and LeMasters, 1996; Clark, 2002) and on students' attitudes and responses to school (Fisher, 2000). In the UK, policy-makers have become aware of the importance of school environment and the government has recently established a £2.2 billion initiative, Building Schools for the Future, with the objective of renewing or rebuilding every secondary school in England within the next 15 years.
These two strands of research - on student voice and on the learning environment - have recently converged, giving rise to a wide range of studies exploring students' perspectives on the learning environment and new initiatives for involving students in improving school buildings and facilities. In the UK, these developments have occurred against a backdrop of government policy promoting user (or client) engagement in public arenas such as health, planning and social services which has also served to promote student participation in the school environment.
2. Aims of the study
The study aimed to explore how schools, architects and planners have consulted young people about the school environment and what impact student consultation and participation have had on planning and design. A review of current practice in the UK and internationally was undertaken to provide a clearer picture of how student consultation and participation in improving the school environment is being developed. During this first stage of the project, data were collected to help us identify:

  • the different ways in which students are being consulted and involved in school environment projects;

  • what aspects of the physical environment in school have been identified by students as being important;

  • how student input is being used to inform planning school architecture and facilities;

  • benefits and difficulties that have been encountered in working with students on these projects.

Our review has included an extensive literature search to investigate theoretical and practical aspects of this area of student voice and the production of a short bibliography

3. What the study has found: Developments in the UK
We have found a wide range of initiatives that have focussed on student participation in the school environment; some of the most interesting examples are outlined below. The majority of these developments are instigated and structured by organisations and government agencies rather than initiated by schools themselves. The projects and programmes differ in their emphases, reflecting the objectives and philosophies of the particular organisations concerned. Some programmes have centred on ways of engaging students' interest in design and the built environment; others have mainly focussed on the pragmatic benefits of user consultation for professional designers; while for others, providing opportunities for citizenship education and democratic decision-making in schools has been the principle objective. (The initiatives are listed in alphabetical order.)
i. The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment
CABE's Education Foundation aims to encourage students to engage with the built environment and has recently focussed on student participation in the design and improvement of school buildings and facilities. The rationale for its approach is that 'involvement in their own school building project is enjoyable and beneficial for both the school and the pupils'. (Robin Nicholson, CBE, CABE Commissioner, CABE, 2004). CABE is working with the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) capital investment programme on its Building Schools for the Future programme. It provides 'Enablers', experienced environment professionals, to give schools advice on building projects and on ways of creating meaningful involvement. CABE is currently working with Private Funding Initiative schemes to support client engagement in the commissioning process.
Student participation in CABE's individual school projects varies from initial consultation with students in planning new school buildings or in schemes for improving the existing facilities (for example, The Dukeries, Ollerton, Nottinghamshire) to more extensive, prolonged involvement, with students taking active roles in the design process and being given opportunities to learn about the construction process (for example, Whitecross High School, single school PFI, Hereford).

ii. The Design Council's Schools Renaissance Project

The Design Council is working with 12 schools over the next three years as part of the 'Kit for Purpose' programme to produce better furnishings and environments in schools to promote more effective learning. The schools taking part represent a cross-section of UK schools and include inner-city comprehensives as well as a rural primary school. The Design Council project brings teachers and students from each school together with a team made up of professionals from the design, education, and procurement fields with the aim of transforming the schools resources market. The focus on products, communications, systems and environments, will enable these teams to establish a process for creating learning environments to suit their needs.

iii. School Councils UK

This agency has been working with schools to develop the role of school councils and provides training courses, materials and newsletters. It is currently running a campaign for involving school councils in improving school toilets, the 'Bog Standard Campaign', and it is encouraging school councils to carry out surveys with students to gather their views on this perennially problematic issue.

iv. School Works

This organisation is a non-profit company which works in partnership with other agencies, including the DfES, Demos and the DTI's Movement for Innovation. Its principle aim is: 'to link the design of secondary school buildings with their impact on teaching, learning, culture and management of those schools' (School Works, 2003). School Works has been working on a small number of school building projects to develop participatory procedures that can be replicated elsewhere. The Kingsdale School, Southwark has been one of their main projects. Here, the School Works team designed a competition with RIBA to identify architects skilled in working with user groups and subsequently carried out a participatory process involving an interdisciplinary team and all sections of the school community, including students. Consultations with students proved particularly helpful in highlighting problems with the existing school buildings:

The deficiencies of the building meant the timetable was rigid, knowledge was delivered in chunks and large populations had to move simultaneously at the sound of a bell. (Moody, 2003)
School Works is encouraging community consultation and participation in the design and renovation of school buildings but it recognises the particular value in offering students opportunities to express their views and to become actively involved.

v. The Sorrell Foundation's Joinedupdesignforschools Project
The Foundation, set up by Frances and John Sorrell, has a key principle of 'inspiring creativity in young people and improving the quality of life through good design'. The Joinedupdesignforschools project was set up to explore how user engagement in the design process could be used to help improve the quality of school environments. The project also sought to increase students' awareness and interest in design and to offer them opportunities for active involvement in design processes. A pilot scheme was begun in 2001 with seven primary and secondary schools (reported by Demos) and in 2002 the DfES provided funding to extend the programme to 100 schools over a three year period. The report on the 31 schools taking part in the second year describes a wide range of projects in schools: some schools chose to focus on issues connected with image and identity (such as signage, websites, uniform), others looked at small-scale practical improvements (such as storage, lockers) while others explored larger developments such as constructing flexible space in a new sixth form facility and playground shelters. The Foundation provided us with videotaped material showing interviews with students, designers and teachers who had taken part in the project. Students' comments indicated a number of positive outcomes:

  • they found the experience of working in teams and liaising with professionals was useful and enjoyable;

  • they appreciated opportunities to voice their opinions and ideas;

  • working on the project inspired their interest in, and awareness of, design;

  • some said that the project helped them to develop new skills;

  • visits to design studios, architects' offices and building sites widened their understanding of the world of work.

vi. Individual Schools
We found some interesting examples of work being undertaken by individual teachers and schools, in responses to the survey distributed to former members of the ESRC Teaching and Learning Research Programme Network Project Consulting Pupils about Teaching and Learning. Some schools were contacted by telephone to discuss their work in more detail. Examples of these student participation initiatives included:

  • a primary school working on playground improvements in consultation with pupils and another school developing a playground quiet area;

  • a secondary comprehensive school consulting students on how to improve cloakrooms and toilets;

  • secondary schools taking part in a national design competition to design a new school facility and win funding to build it (for example, the Netherhall School, Cambridge).


Twyn Primary School, Caerphilly
e have also been given details of work being carried out in Caerphilly primary schools supported by the Children's Participation Officer for Caerphilly County Borough Council, Stephen Berry. The schools are developing projects to improve playgrounds and facilities with the participation of their school councils and they are looking at ways of encouraging students to take an active role in the design of these improvements. The Twyn Primary School has involved pupils in designing and creating an internal garden area that is used for a wide range of cross-curricular activities including art, science and as inspiration for literacy work. The area also provides a pleasant area for pupils to relax in during break and lunch times (see photograph below, supplied by Stephen Berry). The head teacher, Julie Coldrick, said the pupils' positive response to the project has led to the school extending this work to the development of outside areas with the involvement of the school council. The Landscape for Learning Trust has given advice and support with this project and there has been some financial support from the local community.
4. What the study has found: Some international examples
There are some interesting examples of student participation in improving and planning the school environment in countries around the world. In Norway student councils are invited to act as consultants to architects commissioned to design new school buildings. In Australia, children from aborigine communities have been actively involved in designing school buildings (for example, the Djidji Aboriginal School, Western Australia) to ensure that the learning environments are sensitive to their culture and traditions. Rob Walker (University of East Anglia) has also reported on a primary school in an urban setting in Australia which has been designed with students acting as consultants throughout the design process. There are a number of student participation and school environment projects in the United States. The University of Washington College of Architecture has a Center for Education, Environment and Design Studies which is currently working on a project called Build-a-School-Community Case Study. This project uses a case study approach to develop a model in which university faculty and students work in partnership with schools to maximize the educational benefits of constructing a new school building. They are interested in whether children's appropriation of their school environment--through participation in design, construction, and management activities--can enhance their academic and social development, while also improving school safety and sense of community. The study site is the Tukwila Elementary School, where a new facility is under construction.
5. Comment
Although we have found many projects that include an element of student participation, the extent of students' involvement is often quite limited. The word 'participation' is commonly adopted in policy documents (see, for example, the DfES guidance booklet, Working Together: Giving Children and Young People a Voice, 2004) and it crops up frequently in project objectives but its interpretation and application vary. Few, if any, of the initiatives described in this review could be categorised as reaching the top rung of Hart's Ladder of Participation (Hart, 1992) in which an initiative is described as:
Young people-initiated, shared decisions with adults - This happens when projects or programmes are initiated by young people and decision-making is shared between young people and adults. These projects empower young people while at the same time enabling them to access and learn from the life experience and expertise of adults.
Some initiatives could be categorised as tokenistic (Rung 3 on Hart's Ladder) because the pupils appear to be given a voice but, in fact, they have been given very limited choice of what they do and how they participate. It may also be the case that short-term initiatives have little influence on the culture and ethos of a school and their impact is not sustained over time. However, although only a few completed projects have been fully evaluated, and evidence is largely anecdotal, feedback from students, teachers and designers suggests that there are important, positive outcomes for schools, for students and for the design profession. Our review suggests that further research is required to examine how student voice can be used to improve the quality of the school environment through a sustained structure for participation.


CABE (2004) Being Involved in School Design. London: CABE.

Clark, H. (2002) The role of the physical environment in enhancing teaching and learning. London: Institute of Education, University of London.

DfES (2004) Working Together: Giving Children and Young People a Say. London: DfES.

Earthman, G. & Lemasters, L. (1996) Review of research on the relationship between school buildings, student achievement and student behaviour. Scottsdale, Arizona: Council of Education Facility Planners International.

Fisher, K. (2000) Schooling issues digest. Building better outcomes: the impact of school infrastructure on student outcomes and behaviour. Canberra: Dept of Education, Training and Youth Affairs.

Fletcher, A. (2004) Meaningful Student Involvement: Research Guide. Washington: Sound-out!/The Freechild Project.

Hart, R. (1992) Children's Participation: From Tokenism to Citizenship. Florence: UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre.

Moody, M. (2003) School Works - a design case study.

The Sorrell Foundation (2003) Joinedupdesignforschools. London: The Sorrell Foundation.

6. Outcomes of the project
i. Publications
Flutter, J. (submitted for special edition of Educational Review Spring 2006) ''This place could help you learn': Student participation in creating better school environments.
Flutter, J. (2004) Student Participation and the Architecture of Change, Connect Journal (published by the Youth Research Centre, University of Melbourne, Australia), Winter 2004, (special 150th edition)
A summary version of this report will be made available to schools and researchers.
Short articles have been published in the CABE journal '360' (June 2004) and in 'Voice Box', the School Councils UK newsletter '(December 2004)
ii. Short bibliography (see Appendix, pages 7-12)
iii. Links

Links have been established with a number of key organisations including CABE, School-Works, the Sorrell Foundation and the Design Council. A bid is being prepared to apply for funding for an extension project working with schools on improving how space and time are used in schools. We have also been invited to participate in the Sorrell Foundation's seminars at the Victoria and Albert Museum; the Design Council seminars on the Schools Renaissance project and to give feedback on the CABE's Schools of the Future initiative.

APPENDIX: a short bibliography
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