Newness aside, there is often little to differentiate between schools’ academic facilities. The exception is Technology.
In this post I’ll expand on the Typical Facilities in UK Schools post to focus on school academic facilities. After all, academic learning is at the core of a school’s purpose. What should you expect? And how can you compare schools’ academic facilities?
It is a little harder to distinguish between schools on academic facilities. After all, they all follow a similar curriculum at each educational stage. And this is particularly true at secondary level. For example, the majority of schools must have fit-for-purpose science labs to teach science GCSEs. Yes, some schools will have flashier labs for general science and individual sciences. Some might have an environmental science lab, others an army of technicians, lecture theatres and key stage specialist labs. But if they all facilitate the same qualification, you could argue that they are equivalent.
The same can sometimes be true for primary level. With most teaching taking place in the same multi-purpose classroom, there is little to differentiate between schools. Some have a practical room; for activities such as science, art, DT, even music. Some have a computer room for formalised teaching, and some have a library. Many prep schools, on the other hand, do have these specialist facilities, as well as a science lab and maybe a languages room.
But there remain three principle ways to distinguish between schools by academic facilities. Firstly, facilities that enable the teaching of additional subjects. Secondly, the pervasiveness of ICT and computing. And thirdly, (Design) Technology/Engineering.
Academic facilities that facilitate a broader curriculum
There are some academic facilities that enable a broader curriculum, in the same way that sports and arts facilities do. For instance, if a school has an observatory, or a weather monitoring station you would expect the curriculum to be enhanced. Or at the very least, the extra-curriculum.
Over the past few years primary and prep schools have invested in academic facilities to promote outdoor learning. At the basic level, this has given rise to vegetable planters, sensory gardens, allotments and eco-ponds. There may also be an outdoor classroom (from canopied teaching areas to yurts in woodland). At the top end are bush craft, outdoor learning and outdoor activity centres.
The pervasiveness of ICT and computing
Today, it’s not a question of whether a school has computers, or electronic whiteboards. They all have them. It’s not really a question of brand, though some schools boast an iPad to child ratio. It’s more a question of the availability and use of technology to facilitate each lesson and each subject.
Starting with learning the basic rudiments of computing, a school might have an ICT suite, with fixed computers. In some schools, the ICT suite may be a laptop trolley, or a tablet cupboard. But these facilities promote computing as a standalone subject and aren’t significant differentiators.
You get a sense of a school’s commitment to using technology to enhance the curriculum on a walk around the departments. Starting with the library, or rather, the Learning Resource Centre. There’ll be computers for research, accessing periodicals etc. There may also be rooms, “pods”, or terminals for “independent study”.
In senior schools, each department may have its own IT suite with specialist curriculum facilitating software; science, modern languages, technology, art, music. Most classrooms will be equipped with devices. It may be that pupils have their own devices in class; typically, laptops or tablets.
There needs to be a strong IT infrastructure to support the wi-fi, the specialist software, and the collaboration software needed. Schools operating a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policy tend to be at the upper end of technology enabled curricula.
Not that technology in itself means a better curriculum. There are plenty of schools where pupils are wandering around with tablets that do no more than a notebook and pencil.
Technology and Engineering
Technology is the new frontier for schools competing on facilities. Where once there were separate maths and science blocks, and the woodwork workshop languished by the CCF parade ground, now STEM buildings are the facility investment of choice.
Not for primary and prep schools, where Design Technology tends to be bundled in with Art, this is a senior school facility. State and independent.
Design technology facilities make a long checklist. They include tools to explore resistant materials such as wood, plastics and metals. Those academic facilities include power tools, laser cutting, flat bed routers and vinyl cutters, computer aided design and manufacturing (CAD/CAM), and 3D printers. There may also be an electronics lab, or a computer control and robotics lab. Not forgetting kitchens geared to food technology, and banks of sewing machines for textiles design.
It’s not surprising that technology, in its broadest sense, should be the main differentiator between schools’ academic facilities. School curriculum content is regulated and standardised. The delivery mechanism isn’t standardised and that is where technology can make a difference. It is likely to continue to do so.