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A visible improvement

Tim Kearns explains how a new independent study area has enhanced the learning experience of the Kilgraston school\s sixth formers

Posted by Dave Higgitt | December 30, 2013 | Facilities management

Moving from an inner city London academy to a Scottish girls’ boarding school was always going to be something of a culture shock. But when I learned that pupils were looking forward to the installation of carrels for private study, I was positively intrigued. Cloistering students from one another, by means of specially constructed cubicles, is one of the recent innovations in the workspace provided for sixth formers at Kilgraston. Based on what students said they wanted from their workspaces, two symmetrical study areas were created out of the decommissioned science laboratories for lower and upper sixth formers. Where once old taps fuelled Bunsen burners on asbestos mats and iodine-stained worktops, girls now enjoy the university library atmosphere and facilities for independent study, and storage of resources and equipment.

It could be argued that the centre is itself a mere by-product of the school’s new science centre, whose construction led to the vacation of the space the study centre now occupies. But for the girls using these facilities, the two are equal parts of a broader coherent message about the primacy of education for life. It has been pleasing to note the extent to which students take a personal pride in the layout of their work areas, and the way in which these help them to organize their time and tasks. Post-it notes seem to be a very popular way of keeping on top of daily and weekly priorities, even though wall-to-wall wifi means the girls can use electronic organisers. It is typical to walk in and find girls in the process of putting together an essay or working on a problem, and being able to have a discussion about this without directly impacting on the private study of other students; the girls have privacy in full public view.           

The panoptic vision of the glass-fronted study areas and the workspaces was part of the plan to encourage girls to manage themselves. Originally conceived of as a solution to crowded prisons in the late 18th century, panopticism can actually be a liberating force in the wider world! A consciousness of permanent visibility encourages self-discipline and focus. Already teachers report an improvement in the quality of work produced outside of the classroom, and students feel more confident about the meeting of deadlines. Girls report an increased awareness of the work their classmates are putting into their respective studies, and group achievement is raised as a whole.   

In the London academy schools, where teaching is routinely excellent, students nonetheless remarked that they were unable to transpose their learning from the context of the classroom to the assignment they had been given, and infrequent forays into supervised study – whilst costly – led to almost immediate improvements in self-esteem and attainment. Kilgraston has understood that students need to see the importance of independent study in the same way that they can see the importance of lessons: enshrined in a physical space given over to their needs. In between both study spaces, a communal reception area with seating and two offices for supervisions are constantly in use. Contemporary artwork and a wall-mounted rack for academic journals together encourage students to see the centre as something quite separate from both the classroom and common room.

In every controllable aspect, the centre approximates as closely as possible to the kind of learning environment students will be acquainted with as undergraduates, thereby preparing them for the rigours of a university education. A far cry, perhaps, from the laboratories of old but every bit as scientific.

Tim Kearns is head of English and acting head of upper sixth at Kilgraston


The project team

Project manager: Barry Farrell, bursar, Kilgraston School
Architects: Gauldie Wright and Partners
Contractors: Muirfield (Contracts) Ltd



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