Built in 1863, Fingringhoe Primary is probably the smallest school premises in Essex, accommodating four mixed-age classes of children from EYFS to Year 6. It’s a small school with big ideas and it’s on a mission to raise standards through improving teaching and learning. With ‘Project Inspire’ the school aims to motivate and inspire pupils to do better, encouraging them to build their resilience and ‘have a go’ without worrying about making mistakes. The role of the learning environment in raising standards came into focus when attending a workshop run by their county council.
A golden opportunity
Essex County Council invited Professor Stephen Heppell to run a workshop exploring ways of improving learning environments and the Fingringhoe team went along. Professor Heppell’s team have been working with schools and governments around the world to improve learning spaces, to make them innovative and stimulating, designed to improve the learning experience and enable children to achieve more. Following the workshop, when the opportunity arose for a school to work with the Heppell team, Fingringhoe seized the chance to try a new approach, realising that they had spent time developing pupils’ attitudes to learning but hadn’t thought much about the learning environment. The school’s Year 6 classroom had high carbon dioxide levels, poor lighting and a brown false ceiling. In this room, even the best lessons had pupils yawning so it was more than ready for a revamp.
Enter team Heppell, who, with the help of local construction firms ripped down the false ceiling, painted the whole space brilliant white, tidied up disused cables and trunking, fitted bright LED lighting, acoustic panels to absorb excess sound and a foldable writable wall and then installed furniture designed for learning by Learniture. The team also installed a plant wall to increase oxygen levels, with each plant owned by a pupil. Professor Heppell’s team gave the school a prototype Learnometer to enable the teachers and pupils to see how their classroom measured up when it came to light and noise levels, temperature, humidity, air quality including CO2 levels and sound rhythms, all of which have an impact on pupils’ ability to learn.
At Fingringhoe their Learnometer created learning opportunities where the children could take ownership of their environment, clearly seeing the impact of light on their ability to concentrate.
“The pupils themselves could see that the pupils in the dark corner were the ones weren’t concentrating coming up to lunch,” explains Stephen. “They could see that the ones in the lighter bit by the window were still sharp by the end of the day. They thought this was down to them!”
The new classroom has raised levels of engagement, with pupils enjoying the ability to exercise their autonomy over where and how they work. The pupils’ feedback speaks for itself in the letters they wrote to thank Stephen for their new classroom:
“I love using the Heppell Bench because it is better to do workings out or writing on. This is because if you get it wrong you can just rub it out more easily which means we are less frightened of making mistakes. This motivates me as I know if I get something wrong it doesn’t matter.”
“The bench has really helped me concentrate and it helps me complete my calculations. The wall helps me because it has way more space to write on than our little whiteboards and you can see what other people are writing and help them if they need it.”
“Having the bench has helped my learning because I feel less restricted when I sit there I can feel comfortable.”
“My most favourite thing in this class is the Heppell Bench because I can show my workings-out and it’s fun. It’s easy to learn on and helps my learning as it’s easier to concentrate.”
“I also enjoyed sitting on the chairs as I find them really comfortable and I find I feel confident when completing my work.”
But perhaps the last word ought to go to Headteacher, Suzi Ryan.
“Now pupils are starting to understand the impact of environmental factors on their learning, they seem to be more aware of when they are focused and when they are not, they appear to be more motivated.”
For more details about this project, see Essex County Council’s report here.