Pamela Woolner’s book, The Design of Learning Spaces (2010) sets out to consider current issues in the design of new learning environments from an educational rather than architectural perspective. It’s an interesting starting point for me to begin looking into the emergence of the open plan school movement as it provides some concrete examples of early adopting schools in the UK. The four schools she uses as examples were all, for one reason or other, considered landmark buildings. What Woolner has set out to analyse more thoroughly is how these schools have stood the test of time as the relationship between education and architecture changes.
One of these schools, Finmere School in rural Oxfordshire was built in 1959. It was the first to utilize folding partitions to divide and open space, with the classroom itself divided into areas for different learning activities (Woolner, 2010). Although only a two classroom and hall school it was, according to Pearson (1972) one that would “set the course of primary school design for at least a decade”, and one that is referred to frequently in open plan literature (Bennett et al. 1980).
Finmere School was designed less with architectural aims and more with educational influences in mind (Woolner, 2010). Teaching and learning had seen considerable changes since pre war school buildings were constructed and there was a need for designs to alter. Bennett et al (1980) reflects on the fact that the early 1960s had seen increased emphasis on project learning, creativity, centres of interest and of arrangements in the environment that allowed children to work on their own or in small groups. This put new demands on the classroom and teachers were requiring more flexible environments that traditional spaces were unable to offer. “Open planning was simply a natural response to the way primary teachers were already organising their classrooms (p. 19).
The design of Finmere was based on thinking aimed at supporting this more child-centred approach to teaching and learning and was clearly progressive at the time. Being a rural school teaching a population of fifty children from five to eleven meant that there was a real need to be able to group and regroup children and at times to have children of different age groups learning together (Woolner, 1980). The design therefore represented a practical solution to the learning needs of the children and also the teachers’ needs.
How well has it stood the test of time? Woolner collected information from the current head teacher who commented that they “no longer open up the concertina doors and work in an ‘open-plan’ way. Teachers found the noise level too high when working in this way and also behaviour issues increased” (p.8.) Notable too was a more recent move back towards whole-class teaching in UK primary schools and the need to find wall space for interactive white boards.
Finmere School was clearly revolutionary at the time and was partially responsible for setting the trend for open-plan classroom spaces in the 1960s. It’s a valuable exercise to dig back into the literature on schools such as this one in order to understand the thinking of the time that was influencing school design.
Bennett, N., Andreae, J. et al. (1980). Open Plan Schools. Windsor: Schools Council
Pearson, E. (1972). Trends in school design. Macmillan (for the Anglo-American Primary Education Project)
Woolner, P (2010). The design of Learning Spaces. London: Continuum
Image of Finmere School retrieved from http://shelswellparishes.info/finmere/finmerehistory/history/schools/new_school.htm