An attractive school can offer a better, similar or worse education. Our heads tell us that. Our hearts, on the other hand…
It can happen. Two, three, four years into your child’s school career. Someone asks you why you chose the school. You pause, reflect, struggle for the right words, but all you can offer is “It’s an attractive school”, or similar. No going back now. Vainly you try to backtrack, embellish and qualify what you meant. But the damage is done. The impression is cast; of you and of the school. You shrug your shoulders and take another look at the place. You take a selfie in front of it, post it on Facebook and bask in reflected glory.
Looks matter. Like it or not, we are suckers for an attractive school building or grounds. Given the choice, most of us would plonk for a bit of Victorian neo-Gothic red brick over a pre-fab in a car park.
Schools know it too. Great school photos draw the punters in. But don’t take it for granted that your child will be learning in that handsome school building. You might pay closer attention to the Soviet style concrete block almost out of camera shot.
Of course we know that looks aren’t everything, and that the verdancy of the acreage has nothing to do with the quality of the provision within the Grade II listed walls. So what is the subliminal pull of a school with an attractive setting? What do we assume and how should we respond?
We assume an attractive school will inspire pupils
We parents like an attractive school and so do other adults. Staff will certainly enjoy working in more attractive buildings and they may inspire and motivate them more as a result. They may even spend more of their career at the school and low staff turnover is generally a positive thing.
But will pupils be more inspired? Possibly. There are some convincing arguments that modern, thoughtfully laid out rooms bathed in natural light are more conducive to learning. Shabby chic might add charm and a homely feel for a boarding house. But run down, tired and disrepair communicates a lack of care. Ergonomic arguments aside, there’s little evidence that buildings that are simply attractive will inspire pupils…unless the school looks like Hogwarts.
Your best guess as to whether the school will inspire and motivate your child comes from looking at the rooms they will learn in. They have to live and breathe “school”; with fit for purpose layouts, furniture, artwork or learning aids on appropriate walls and so on. Beware the school that appears functional and smells of disinfectant.
There are schools, and sometimes they are attractive ones, that are a school by day and something else at night; a leisure centre, a religious centre, or a tertiary education centre. These have compromised identities as schools; the focus of the management is diverted by considerations to maximise the use/income of the space. Your child won’t be inspired by those surroundings.
We assume that the history of an attractive school will inspire
An attractive school may once have been the home of an eminent person; politician, military, aristocrat, artist. The history (the school will tell you) implies tradition, heritage and continuity. What was good and true in days of yore, is still good and true today. It may take a substantial leap of faith to accept that just because some toff owned the building, your child will engage more in the best of universal human values.
This kind of story is common to many schools; schools originally established to educate the poor in industrial cities, for example. Again tradition, heritage and continuity but also altruism, service, honourable aims, and so on. The message is “we’ve been doing it for years, and we’re still doing it”. It’s always worth checking the number of wealthy foreign students at the school when hearing this one.
Pupils will be inspired and motivated by the school’s sense of purpose; its guiding principles, its moral compass, and the relevance of the school’s story to them. Too many schools make a limp effort at an “ethos”, often describing their sense of purpose as a “broadly Christian ethos” or similar. That’s not a story, and it’s not inspiring. Without a doubt, older schools have a head start on a potentially inspiring story, but just because the school setting is more attractive, its raison d’être need not be more compelling.
We assume that an attractive school offers superior facilities and teaching
A school with an attractive setting suggests wealth. The implication is that this wealth will be imparted to your child through superior facilities and teaching.
It might. Equally, it might not.
There is a problem with old buildings, especially listed buildings. They are more expensive to run and more expensive to maintain. It is possible that a good proportion of fee income, endowment funds or education authority funding pays for the upkeep and maintenance of the buildings and grounds. And not your child’s education. The school may have a separate income stream to fund the estate such as charitable donations and wedding venue hire. But in doing so, the school buildings may live and breathe “school” a little less.
All of which you can checked on a visit, and the facilities development plan.
There’s no reflected glory if it isn’t an attractive school
So as attracted as we adults are to a school with beautiful buildings and grounds, we shouldn’t assume that the educational provision is necessarily better. What inspires pupils are is not the beauty of the setting per se but a stimulating school environment with a sense of purpose.
But can you take a selfie of that and post it on Facebook?