Research Centre for Learning and Teaching

Building Knowledge about School Buildings

Building Knowledge about School Buildings


We continue to contribute to knowledge of how school design relates to education. We develop our expertise by conducting research into the physical school environment.

Participatory research and collaborative educational innovation link this to our over-arching themes.

Our research

Our research started as commissions in the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) era.

The early work is influential. It establishes our reputation for study of the relationship of setting to learning. A report from the Scottish Funding Council shows this.

Since the curtailing of BSF, we have argued that it is even more important to think about space in school. Especially how it is:

  • designed
  • organised
  • used


In 2011, we held an interdisciplinary conference with many UK and international speakers. It attracted practitioners and academics from a diversity of backgrounds.

Our research reflects a commitment to understanding the physical school environment. This is both review work and empirical studies. It influences other projects conducted within CfLaT.

Early Work

In 2004, the Design Council asked us to look at ways to improve learning through altering the physical school environment.

Innovative testing

This project involved some interesting visits to schools as they:

  • painted walls to improve concentration
  • test-drove some innovative, ergonomic desks
  • rearranged their staffroom so teachers actually talked to one another

Literature review

It led the Design Council and CfBT to fund a literature review into research on the influence of environment on learning.

This gave us the theoretical background to understand what we’d observed in the schools. It also got us thinking more about the construction and organisation of schools.

Everyone tended to regard the environment as a given element to cope with. We stepped back and questioned that.

If our literature review‌ had a conclusion, it was that it’s very complicated. There are no reliable quick fixes for the learning environment.

A fascinated CfBT asked us to do a further review of the history of school buildings. A central observation was that no-one ever set out to build a dreadful school.

Yet later judgements might suggest a previous generation intended to cover the land with unusable schools.

It is easier to know what is wrong with a learning environment once you struggle with it. It's much easier than anticipating new problems.

Sharing our findings

To disseminate this work, we held a seminar in September 2005. It attracted:

  • teachers
  • managers
  • planners
  • architects

They were from the public, private and academic sectors. Download Dr Catherine Burke's presentation from the seminar‌ (PDF: 3.5 MB).

Debate was lively, emphasising that this was a discussion whose time had come. We received quite a lot of media interest.

The Journal covered our take on the question of how best to invest in school buildings. We also got mentioned by the TES, The Guardian, Northern Echo and BBC Online.

Small articles in the Daily Mirror and the Daily Mail convinced us of the relevance. A lengthy interview on BBC Radio Shropshire was interesting.

Arts Council project

A representative of the Arts Council North East attended the seminar. They asked us to undertake the evaluation of their school building project.

This project involved arranging for an artist to join a BSF team to influence the design process.

Visiting local schools enabled us to see how designing and building occurs. It showed us the impact on those involved.

Community and design

Durham County Council asked us to explore how school communities could get involved in redesign.

The project at Seaham School, which was being rebuilt, involved:

  • students
  • teachers
  • learning support staff
  • administrators
  • lunchtime supervisors
  • cleaners and groundsman

Using innovative visual methods, we examined their experience of the premises. We developed their ideas for the new building. This work appeared in various conference papers and journal articles.

We were also involved in other related projects, taking on advisory roles.

Advisory groups

We were advisory group members for an EPSRC funded project. This was ‘Designing New Schools – putting people at the heart of the process’ (2006-2010).

We worked with the School of Architecture, University of Sheffield. Dr Rosie Parnell, an academic partner of CfLaT, was director.

Pam Woolner was a member of the steering group for a HEFCE-funded project. It was ‘Innovative, effective, enjoyable? Creating the evidence base to deliver productive academic workplaces’. It was run by The Department of Civil and Building Engineering, Loughborough University.


The earlier review work has continued to prove influential across global education sectors.


Governments reference our ideas and publications. They appear in guidance produced for the:

  • Australian Learning and Teaching Council
  • Scottish Funding Council
  • State Government of Victoria’s Department of Education and Early Childhood Development

At home

Closer to home, our work was central to early evaluations of Buiding Schools for the Future.

The First Annual Report‌, produced by PricewaterhouseCoopers for the DCSF, referred to an article. This summarised the findings of our initial review, as well as the review itself.

A summary graphic adapted from the article is prominent in the full report. The extended literature review makes references to our conclusions, including a lengthy quote:

"The relationship between people and their environment is complex. Any outcomes from a change in setting are likely to be produced through an involved chain of events. It is the defining and understanding of these mediating chains that is key. It must take account of issues relating to ownership, relevance, purpose and permanence." (p.E13 from Woolner et al., 2007, p.62).

The report gives prominence to our central idea. That is the importance of understanding existing conditions. This is key in any assessment of the impact of change to the learning environment.

Problems associated with deficient settings are clearer than benefits of improving an adequate environment. Or, as PricewaterhouseCoopers put it:

“The negative impact of poor design on pupils and staff is more evident than the benefit of good design for adequate environments.” (Conclusions, p.E22).

Our expertise

We have presented our overview of the available evidence in a range of situations. Pam Woolner has spoken at meetings and seminars across the UK.

Pam's expertise has been further recognised. She gave evidence as part of the British Council for School Environments Great Schools Inquiry.

The Great Schools Inquiry was an independent investigation. Baroness Estelle Morris, former Secretary of State for Education, chaired it.

Pam and two other noted researchers in this area addressed: 'What evidence is there of the link between school buildings/environments and educational achievement and broader outcomes for young people?’.

Recent Work

We continue to develop our understanding. We look at experiences and influences of users and designers in educational spaces.

Evidence-based studies

Recent work has included evidence-based studies. These include:

  • collaborative projects with teachers and learners of Oakfields School and Rickleton Primary School
  • a further review considering the impact on learning of noise
  • a cross-disciplinary book about educational architecture and possibilities for participatory design

Complex theme

It is clear that the relationship between education and physical environment is complex. A school is part of a wider, dynamic web of cultural and social aspects.

There is potential for change in the physical learning environment to help improve education.

Yet, it is possible for the setting to remain forgotten and static, as other aspects are adapted. It's possible for physical innovation to be set apart and fail to influence teaching and learning.

Variation of facilities

Recent building work in UK schools has resulted in wide variation in facilities:

  • schools built between the mid-19th century and the present day
  • schools designed for disparate understandings of education adapted to fulfil current requirements
  • school rolls above or below what the premises were designed for

The range of schools and expected limits to rebuilding provide an opportunity. There is clear need for research into the impact of the physical setting on learning.

We need to know how schools can make best use of the spaces they have.

More information

If you would like to commission research, or find out more about our projects, contact Pam Woolner.

Download a poster detailing our current theme (PDF: 900 KB).


Here you find publications related to this area of research.


Woolner, P. (2015) (Ed.) School Design Together, Abingdon: Routledge.

Woolner, P. (2010) The Design of Learning Spaces, London: Continuum.


Woolner, P., Clark, J., Laing K., Thomas, U. and Tiplady, L. (2014) A school tries to change: how leaders and teachers understand changes to space and practices in a UK secondary school Improving Schools 17(2): 148-162

Woolner, P., McCarter S., Wall K. and Higgins S. (2012) Changed learning through changed space: When can a participatory approach to the learning environment challenge preconceptions and alter practice? Improving Schools 15(1), 45-60.

Woolner, P., Clark, J., Laing K., Thomas, U. and Tiplady, L. (2012) Changing spaces: preparing students and teachers for a new learning environment. Children, Youth and Environments, Special Issue: Reconceptualising School Design: Child and youth environments for learning 22(1), 52-74.

Woolner, P. (2011) Creating individualised optimal learning environments through participatory design. Educational and Child Psychology, 28(1) 9-19.

McCarter, S. and Woolner, P. (2011) How listening to student voice can enable teachers to reflect on and adjust their use of physical space. Educational and Child Psychology, 28(1) 20-32.

Woolner, P. and Hall, E. (2010). Noise in Schools: A Holistic Approach to the Issue, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 7(8): 3255-3269.

Woolner, P., Clark, J., Hall, E., Tiplady, L., Thomas, U., and Wall, K. (2010) Pictures are necessary but not sufficient: using a range of visual methods to engage users about school design, Learning Environments Research: An International Journal. 13(1): 1-22.

Woolner, P., Hall, E., Wall, K. and Dennison, D. (2007) Getting together to improve the school environment: user consultation, participatory design and student voice. Improving Schools, 10(3), 233-248.

Woolner, P., Hall, E., Higgins,S., McCaughey, C., and Wall, K. (2007) A sound foundation? What we know about the impact of environments on learning and the implications for Building Schools for the Future. Oxford Review of Education, 2007, 33(1), pp. 47-70.


Higgins, S., Hall, E., Wall, K., Woolner, P., McCaughey, C. (2005) The Impact of School Environments: A literature review. London: Design Council.

Woolner, P., Hall, E., Wall, K., Higgins, S., Blake, A. and McCaughey, C. (2005) School building programmes: motivations, consequences and implications. Reading: CfBT.