School facilities are a means to an end, not an end in themselves.
We parents like school facilities. Or rather, we like schools with lots of facilities. Why? Because we assume that such schools provide a better education.
So we treat school tours as little more than a guide around the school facilities. We walk to one facility, gawp at it, then walk off to the next, subconsciously judging the facilities we see. We’re not listening to our guide. He is merely a navigation facility, a human map app. We certainly aren’t listening to the teacher explaining how he teaches his subject. But we are clocking the little gizmo in his hand that he uses to control the interactive whiteboard. Later on that evening we’ll compare the educational strengths and weaknesses of the schools we’ve seen. But all we really remember is the extent of mahogany panelling in the library, the sound quality of the Bluetooth headphones in the language lab and the difference between a 4G and a 3G Astroturf.
School facilities facilitate learning
School facilities increase the likelihood of a better and broader educational experience. Facilities only facilitate learning.
For example, a swimming pool not only increases the likelihood of providing swimming lessons, it increases the likelihood of swimming lessons at a younger age, competitive swimming teams and learning other water sports and activities such as synchronised swimming, water polo, kayaking, scuba diving, life-saving. It also increases the likelihood of an impromptu PE or games lesson in the pool. In other words, the facility facilitates learning.
That said, a school that doesn’t have a swimming pool can still offer the same activities by using community facilities. But it is a little harder to do, and evidence confirms that, on average, it is less likely.
Having a swimming pool does not make a school better if it isn’t used, or the teachers aren’t proficient in teaching water sports. Switching the example to technology, a school room full of iPads may look impressive. But if the pupils aren’t learning new skills (such research, collaboration, communication) over and above what pen and paper can provide, then the facility is a white elephant. In both these cases the facilities facilitate nothing.
Schools with more pupils should have more facilities than smaller schools
Obvious? But many get caught out by this. So let’s qualify the “more facilities are better” maxim with a caveat or two.
The number and size of facilities should reflect the size of the school. A bigger school needs more facilities than a smaller school. A school of 1,200 pupils needs three times as many science labs than one of 400. And, how much of a facility is one art room in a school of 1,200?
Senior schools have more facilities than junior schools. It’s partly due to size; the average primary school has 275 pupils, the average senior school has 950. But its more to do with where the pupil is on their learning path. The marginal benefit of, say, a science lab for a senior school pupil is more than for a junior. This is why the facilities of the average primary school are a playground and a multi-purpose hall. However, the average senior school will have an all-weather games surfaces, a sports hall, an assembly/performance space, a dining hall and multiple rooms for art, DT, music, drama, computing and science.
I wrote a post about typical facilities in UK schools here.
Access to facilities is important, especially for younger pupils
Access to the facility is all important. An on-site facility is better than an offsite facility because there is logistical effort required to arrange staff and transportation. For senior school pupils, it’s less of an issue. But for junior school pupils an owned swimming pool one mile away is equivalent to the pool at the local leisure centre in terms of facilitating extra or enhanced activity.
This presents problems for London and other urban schools, where space is at a premium and facilities necessarily fewer. Pupils tend to use community facilities, but some schools build facilities miles from the school.
Facilities shared with a senior school on the same site are more convenient but despite the proximity, access can still be an issue. Evidence is that seniors take priority, such that the benefit to the junior pupils of an owned facility is marginal. And anyway, having juniors in the same space as large teenagers is never a comfortable idea.
Facilities arms race
With our natural inclination to effuse about school facilities, is it any wonder why some schools invest more in them? The arts and sports facilities at some senior independent schools are professional standard. Facilities at some junior independents are better than many senior schools. Some independent schools have been accused of engaging in a “facilities arms race” to attract wealthy overseas pupils. If having the latest and best pulls the punters in, who’s to knock it? If parents are wowed by such facilities then the facilities arms race will continue. As will the funds required to pay for it.
School facilities are expensive, and they come in fads. Recently we’ve had outdoor classrooms, high and low rope courses, iPads, library media centres, Astroturf playing surfaces, drama studios, stage lighting consoles, music technology, fitness suites and the ultimate status symbol; the pavilion.
I read an article recently about a school that had just spent £2.4M on a new pavilion. That’s a lot of money on changing rooms and a post-match butty. The article elaborated on the superior view of the playing fields (and attractive school buildings) afforded by this pavilion. And that’s when it occurred to me who the facility is for; parents. Not for these parents the time honoured tradition of standing on the touchline buffeted by the wind and the rain. These facilities offer seating and warmth behind floor to ceiling tinted glass and a superior selection of vol-au-vents.
School facilities are a means to an end
So now, in the spirit of the times, the school facilities arms race has gone post-facilities. They no longer facilitate a better and broader educational experience but some other objective. But if the specifications are comparable the “well maintained and used” facility is as good as the gleaming new one. And if we take that view, our choice of school widens dramatically.
So yes, we should enthuse in the promise that a school’s facilities may offer. But we must look also beyond the Astroturf and the auditorium to question how more expansive the educational provision is. School facilities are a means to an end, not an end in themselves.