Sunday, August 14, 2011

Open-plan in New Zealand

Much of my own reading around open-plan schools has been centred on research carried out in England. A recent visit to Auckland University library though uncovered a Department of Education publication, a Report on Open Plan Education in New Zealand Primary Schools, published in 1977.

By the mid 1970s, according to the report, there were 200 open plan units in New Zealand, catering for 3.5% of primary children. This was set to grow to 474 and 8% by the end of 1978. At the time of the report two-thirds of the units had been operating for less than two years. Many of these units existed in schools that also had more traditional teaching classrooms.

The report was the result of a systematic study into open-plan schools, albeit in their early stage of development in New Zealand, and brought together views of teachers, principals and architects. What it recognized was that increased numbers of children were being taught in open-plan schools, and that whilst there was a body of evidence in the UK in support of them, the debate “lacked an adequate empirical basis in New Zealand practice” (p. 9). The report therefore set out to address such areas as the adequacy of training of teachers for open-plan, the attitudes towards it from teaching staff and the professional educational practices required from teachers.

The report’s primary recommendation was that:
“We recommend that the development of open plan education be continued and that this development be subject to continuing evaluation” (p. 11).

The report discusses the general satisfaction with open-plan education and the “favourable views of benefits for children expressed by a majority of the principals of schools with open plan units, teachers in open plan units at the time of the survey, and teachers who had formerly taught in open plan units” (p. 12).

Despite its recommendation the report did make some qualifications; that many principals and teachers were dissatisfied with some features of the open-plan units; that 55% of teachers reported a higher level of stress that when working in a traditional classroom; that some teachers were concerned about the effect on new entrants, disruptive children and shy children; and that only a minority of teaches received any training for teaching in the new spaces.

In response to some of these qualifications the report suggested that in building schools with open-plan units, there should also be provision for more traditional spaces as well. It noted that spaces should not be built to accommodate any more than the equivalent of four classes of children, and that there should be a withdrawal space large enough for fifteen children. It also suggested that pre-service training be provided in areas of co-operative teaching and in the use of open-plan spaces.

I think what’s interesting looking at the report now was the relatively small amount of it dedicated to student outcomes and learning. The information collected on students consisted, as it says, “of the opinions of both present and former open plan teacher, principals and inspectors” (p. 57). Of these a large majority surveyed agreed that achievement was “at least as high as in conventional classrooms” (p. 66). Of real interest though is the fact that of the principals (83% of whom headed schools that also had traditional classroom spaces) a large majority favoured open-plan.

There’s a lot more to be pulled out of this report and I’m interested to look further into the views of teachers at the time. It’s interesting too, to consider the projections that there would be potentially close to 500 open-plan units in New Zealand schools at the end of the 1970s. I wonder how many there are left now?


Department of Education. (1977). Report on open plan education in New Zealand. Wellington: Department of Education.


  1. It's funny that the report mentions a need for training for pre-service teachers in cooperative teaching. As a student teacher I find the idea of being stuck in a classroom by myself somewhat daunting. I like being able to have an ongoing-conversation about my and the students learning with my associate without the pressure of an observation which tends to constrain behaviour.

  2. Hi Stephanie, great blog! Thanks for your comment
    It reflects a recurring theme in the literature from the mid 1970s. Teachers often felt ill prepared to work in open-plan classrooms. This went for both new teachers entering the profession as well as teachers who were pushed into these spaces. It just wasn't a way of working that they'd been trained in and certainly not everyone's cup of tea. For many teachers, moving into such spaces was a big change and in some ways quite threatening. For teachers who had spent a number of years in a 'single cell' classroom to be suddenly required to teach in an open plan space required a significant change in thinking. It goes some way to explain why many open-plan schools did not sustain. It's a very relevant consideration for pre-service teacher institutions now too, given a contemporary move towards open spaces, although there have been major shifts in pedagogy since the 1970s. How will institutions address this as part of the degree/ diploma courses?
    Teachers here have really relished teaching in a space with colleagues and have really benefitted from the incidental professional development that goes on the whole time. It's not the norm though and could be a great place for a beginning teacher to grow in their practice, learning alongside colleagues.