A checklist for choosing a child’s school – why educators should pay attention.

David Gillespie’s new book, Free schools – How to get a great education for your kids without spending a fortune, is a valuable perspective on contemporary education from the parent’s point-of-view. Although Gillespie spent a great deal of time researching the current educational landscape, which the average parent might not necessarily do themselves, he maintains his parental perspective by focusing on what matters to a parent looking for the best schooling option for his children. SchoolIMG_0195 leaders are well advised to consider the book because Gillespie offers a systematic way for parents to evaluate and select a school for their child. It is supercharged advice from one parent to thousands of other parents and educators should take the opportunity of listening in on this conversation.

In Part 2 of his book, Gillespie articulates what matters and what does not matter when it comes to finding the right school for your child. The items that do not matter as much as parents might think are: gender-based schools; high fees; small classes and multi-age classes. While small classes obviously provide more opportunity for one-on-one time for each child, it does come at a financial cost. Single gender IMG_3245schools do not cause any significant academic advantages unless coupled with selective enrollments that target the most capable students and stream according to ability. The value added items a significant income can buy within a school (such as individual technology and impressive facilities) are recognised as making the task of learning and teaching more comfortable, varied and easier, but Gillespie says the research still points to the fact these items will not have the same impact on student achievement as effective teachers and principals will have.


The book concludes the quality of teaching in the classroom and the leadership offered by the principal matter a great deal more than any other factors. However, there are eleven other things that matter, once you have established the school provides effective leadership and teaching (Gillespie, 2014, pages 165-6).

  1. Learning to learn is important;
  2. Extracurricular activities (especially music) should be on offer;
  3. Languages other than English should be part of the curriculum (especially for primary schools);
  4. Effective use of technology will make a difference;
  5. Effective behaviour management is important;
  6. Homework policy does not make a lot of difference;
  7. Effective communication with parents (about educational matters) matters a great deal;
  8. Avoid primary schools that do not use phonics to teach reading;
  9. Avoid schools that stream according to academic ability;
  10. Look for schools that accelerate gifted students (if your child is a genius);
  11. If your child has special needs, know exactly what resources are available.

Running through the list of eleven things that matter, in addition to the two non-negotiables of teacher effectiveness and principal leadership, you have a reasonable summary of what happens in schools. By the time I had finished reading the book, I was already running through the responses I would give parents who happened to use this list to test the quality and appropriateness of my school for their children. It would be a good exercise to consider the criteria Gillespie shares and test out what your school prioritises. If your list is different to this one, then you may still need to be ready to argue your case against this very persuasive book and parents who arrive at their interviews armed with this checklist.

Reference: David Gillespie: Free schools – How to get a great education for your kids without spending a fortune, MacMillan, 2014.

Can your “career orientations” influence your workspaces?

An article recently appeared on the HBR Blog Network (Know What Kind of Careerist You Are by B Groysbery & R Abrahams – 25 March 2014). The authors revisited the framework suggested by a management academic in the 1980s. C Brooklyn Deer proposed five career orientations that tend to shift over time and according to circumstances, and these orientations can be linked to satisfaction. Rather than locking people into one personality type, this framework recognises change and variation throughout a person’s career.

The five orientations are:

  • getting secure – seeking regularity and predictability by fitting in with workplace norms;
  • getting ahead – focused on promotions, increasing scope of their work and authority;
  • getting free – focused on autonomy and self-direction;
  • getting high – seeking work that provides greater stimulation, purpose and engagement;
  • getting balanced – desiring a bit of all the orientations and seeking both challenge and fulfillment without sacrificing a personal life. (While this is the most common orientation, Deer says only some people are genuinely motivated by this orientation.)

This framework challenges me to think about how could we design teacher workplaces to respond to these orientations. Can we rearrange the design of our physical workplace (commonly referred to as ‘the school”) to offer opportunities for staff to spend their day in ways that offer security, freedom, balance and stimulation. The work environment can also be designed to offer a “get ahead” orientation by keeping teachers and leaders in daily contact with one another and new opportunities.

Here are some suggestions for teacher workspaces and workplace practices:

Getting secure: allocated storage space and work areas for focused, individual work (can be shared but at least provide reserved zones); food preparation and eating areas sufficient for all staff to use in peak times; core classrooms; availability of all relevant policy documents; clear guidelines on procedure and process; structured communication network that is consistently maintained.

Getting ahead: avoid isolating faculties and departments through poor design; consider placing office space for executive teachers in different areas within the school; use shared or less formal spaces for meetings; create readily available spaces for co-operative and collaborative work; increase opportunities for teachers to see leadership at work; “advertise” opportunities for participation in new projects and roles in a systematic way.

Getting free and getting high: provide the teacher with the same space opportunities that you would for students – a mix of spaces where you can focus on work alone, work with others on a shared project and meet-up with others when seeking inspiration, assistance or resources for your individual projects; some flexibility with work hours or “coming into the office”; fast wireless connectivity; mobile technologies; robust IT network and access to support staff.

Getting balanced: All of the above, but to make balance achievable a few specific ways of doing things in the workplace would be helpful. Organise annual discussions that identify the current orientation and, if possible, translate it into the new year’s timetable, workload and general expectations. Systems for booking spaces and resources. Consistency in workplace processes and systems, including carefully managed and resourced IT. And lastly, communication that is democratic, timely and explicit.

You do not need to wait for a new building project before implementing some of these ideas. Most teacher workplaces have these spaces in some form and number, so leadership could start at any time to build these orientations into the workplace. The thing to remember is to be deliberate and purposeful in the allocation and use of those spaces.

My London experiences of shared workspaces

I feel like Alice – I have dived down a rabbit hole into a world that resembles my own but is clearly different. Without wanting to labour the rabbit analogy, I must say it is more like a warren. Everyday I follow a new tunnel into the world of adult co-working. I think it will take a long time to sort out all the information and experiences, not to mention work out what to do with this understanding of adult workspaces and worktrends. However, I think it is worthwhile to sort out a few key gleanings from these weeks before the impressions flee from my mind or are supplanted with new impressions and more websites.


Gleaning #1: co-working is not hot-desking.

Current trends are falling into a number of patterns. New spaces are choosing between a model that seek a set up that fosters co-working – which is working in the same space of other businesses (usually freelancers, sole operators, small groups from remote companies) with the chance of collaboration between associates and colleagues in similar industries. Share the space, the coffee breaks and conversations or don’t. It is not one organisation that occupies the space, so there is no company culture just the necessary etiquette to make a space workable for everyone. The benefits are two-fold: access to resources that the average start-up or freelancer can afford and human interaction. The chance for conversation and assistance with your business comes with the physical space.

The other trend is simply just to the physical resources of an established office, somewhat like using a hotel. At its simplest level, it is a hot-desk and at its most complex is access to a full suite of office resources and support services. The benefit involves the portability of your office space. As the access to global markets increases, small and big businesses look for cost savings while still allowing for physical contact with clients and customers. You do not know where you will next do business, so access to an office no longer has to come in the form of coffee shops, hotel foyers and airport lounges.

Co-working spaces still have the hot-desking model as a way of allocating their resources but rather than ensuring the isolation of each space user, these spaces guarantee interaction as one of their resources. The people are a resource to each other and to the space. It is a very human way of living but not necessarily a very natural way of doing business. The people in the space are colleagues in the world of work, not clients (eventhough very profitable relationships have been struck up in these places). Trust and a mutual expectation that people give away some of their skill and time to promote others are the cornerstones of these co-working environments.

Co-working is not collaboration in the strictest sense of work practice. Collaboration in a world of work focuses on the teamwork approach typical of design thinking. One would usually do it from within an organisation or as part of a business-client team or with identified associates. Setting up the projects is not serendipitous and usually a deliberate strategy for solving a problem or completing a project. Co-working can supply the serendipitous element to individual working as it uses collaborative approaches of bringing together people in the one physical space, sharing resources and time. However, the individual is working on their own project, drawing in resources from the environment and typically the online world.

Incubators and start-ups are another take on the co-working and collaborative environments. The focus here is upon accelerating the development of new ideas, businesses and products, thus encouraging enterprises to make it to the marketplace as quickly as possible. Campus London is one such place.

So, where might these notions and work practices fit into the work world of the teacher? How might they find their way into the way we organise teacher workspaces? Are we already doing these things but by other names?


Gleaning #2: people are integral to the co-working movement

Physical spaces are the stage, the behavioural setting for human work and interaction. Therefore, what co-working really relies upon for a deeper experience is people. People host, turn up to the space to model work and share, people maintain the property, people bring in people. People who co-work are usually happy to be nomadic but not isolated – if everyone plays their part, there will be people there to meet, assist and ask for help. You can work alone but there is feeling that there is a chance you may just miss out on that great conversation that will lead to a breakthrough in your own work.

Spaces like the Impact Hubs, structurally operate like membership co-working spaces but are conceptually driven by a spirit of collaboration. I visited all three Hubs in London, and while each one looks different and has a different membership profile, they all demonstrate the influence of effective hosting. The collaborative spirit is constantly reinforced and enabled by the hosting team, who are present in the space during opening hours.
Gleaning #3: Do not be beguiled by an aesthetically beautiful space – ask, is there any life behind the facade?

Apologies that my blog is not overflowing with photographs of fantastic buildings, awe inspiring interiors, spaces that make you envious of the so, so beautiful Eames chair. Designers and architects can take care of that for you or take a virtual tour of “I wish I worked there” offices.

I have been spending most of my time talking to the people working in the spaces I have been visiting. The ideas behind the design and the brief the physical space was seeking to address have been far more important. I did visit a fabulous building today, the recently completed Royal College of General Practitioners on Euston Road. It was the location for the Workplace Trends Conference, but the building itself was a great example of what the conference was talking about all day. It was a bespoke design, seeking to address the needs of a large membership and specific needs for clinical examinations. The building was also listed, so the design had to take into account the historical elements of its Edwardian wing whilst designing a structure for the new century. Of course, it cost a fortune to bring it up to the desired standard of finish but the concepts behind the way in which people moved through the building and made use of incidental spaces for key activities can be translated to other projects.


So, if money is stopping you prioritising teacher workspaces, think again. It costs less cash than you think to redesign a teacher workspace/ environment. It is about the way people think about work – it about connecting the right people with the plan and then focusing on a few key physical environment drawcards. The other resources needed to complete the work environment, schools would already provide – they might just need some reconfiguring and repurposing.

New ways are easier in new places

The other evening, I met up with some colleagues from Australia and they reminded me I had visited a school that had introduced a totally different way of approaching the way their staff worked.

iPad log-in

ESSA is in the Manchester region and was a new build. It was also totally online, in the sense that all staff and students worked off iPads and mobile devices. Texts and resources were served up in digital form through large presentation screens and individual devices. The classrooms were equipped with a full range of technologies to support the teaching and learning processes, and the agile physical environment was further enhanced with walls painted with whiteboard finishes, flexible furniture and a variety of storage options. The only place where digital devices were not used was the library containing resources and literature in hard copy. This space was placed in a prominent position, reminding students that all resources were valuable supports for learning.


All the students and staff were assigned storage lockers. These lockers were placed in a large atrium. Everyone had a locker in this area. Behind reception, in a central part of the building, was a communal cafeteria. Staff worked, met and socialised in this area alongside the students. The space was large, with refectory style tables, and of course the Wifi was fast. There were no staffrooms, and since the entire school was housed under the one roof, staff and students could work anywhere due to the connectivity of the Wifi and the flow of the physical spaces. These way of working was part of the design and processes of this academy from the start.


By means of contrast, I visited a school in Melbourne a number of years ago. It was a substantial, well established school with plenty of buildings spread across a large property. In one relatively under utilised section of the property a decision had been made to set up a large, open plan work area for staff. It should have worked in the sense that there were sufficient funds to plan an effective design, there were teaching areas nearby and there was one (of a number) library on the floor below. The space was large enough to accommodate a variety of working spaces and activities. However, it was like the Marie Celeste. The staff had not taken up the space. Why? Location was a factor – it was centrally placed but to only one section of the school. The staff had many other alternatives and they chose their traditional haunts. There was no specific reason, pedagogically or social, for introducing the new way of working for staff – no purpose for the change other than it was a new idea for a spare space.

So, it would seem it is easier to introduce new ways of working in a new build. It is easier to design new types of environments in a new build. It is more effective to have a driving purpose for making changes to the ways staff work before introducing them to new environments – new physical conditions support change that is led by people.

Revisiting my writings on the design of spaces.

Last year I travelled to Finland, Canada, the Netherlands, England, Denmark and Sweden with the purpose of visiting interesting spaces for learning and collaborating. To launch my PlaceShaping Project, I thought I would re-post some of my thoughts from that trip.

One thing I observed when visiting the schools and universities on the study tour was the tendency for occupants (namely teaching staff and administrators that didnot quite grasp the concepts behind collaborative spaces) to commence a process of closing down the open spaces.

The arguments for doing so are familiar (noise, distractions, privacy, organising clutter) but are not really valid in an environment that has already committed itself to flexible, open spaces. By putting up walls, perhaps both literal and conceptual, the whole design is compromised. Other spaces stop working effectively and issues with lighting and ventilation emerge.

Often what is needed is a new approach to using the open spaces, rather than retro-fitting walls. It is true that classes make noise, it is true that working in an open space can make you self-conscious or afraid of accidental scutiny and it is true people like to own a space of their own. I know this because I have taught in schools for more than twenty years. However, I would argue there are solutions to all of these problems that do not involve making boxed in spaces.

The first step towards avoiding the plasterboard solution is to make a list of the reasons why walls are wanted. The next step is to prioritise the problems, working from most long-term significant to maaters of personal preference. This process does not trivialise the individual’s point of view but it is important not to emphasise the transient over the lasting.

It is possible the original design may not have been as suitable as first thought but proceed with caution. I would suggest the open collaborative spaces should be preserved at all costs, with other solutions, such as sound-absorbing materials investigated or creating smaller private workspaces elsewhere, investigated.


Humour, X Factors and Books

1. Where has the wit and humour gone?

As educators we may speak about the joy of learning, the excitement of discovery, the challenge of puzzles and the nurturing of imagination, but what about fostering humour and wit? When did we start taking the everyday so seriously, forgetting to inject the opportunity to laugh at the absurd and funny? As someone who teaches English, I know from bitter experience how difficult it is to explain how humour works on a text, let alone teach the gentle art of wit.

So turning to the physical space, why have so many spaces designed for children lost their witty charm? In our pursuit of citrus coloured glass panels, clean surfaces and ovoid shapes have we forgotten to inject a little humour? When researching my thesis, I spoke to far more children than adults about their favourite places for learning. The middle-school aged children did not wax lyrical like Kevin McCloud about soaring rooflines and inspiring conceptual connections with the outside environments. They were not bothered with “echoing the rolling terrain” or the sustainability of air-conditioning. These students wanted comfortable places where they could have fun doing their work and playing with their friends. They also wanted things that kids liked, not what adults admired.

Fortunately, the art of injecting humour into the built environment is not extinct in the learning environments of Europe (or at least the ones I happened to visit). Even if they are the exception rather than the rule, the smiles that were evoked by touches of whimsy were appreciated, and whimsy did not need to translate into childishness. Here are a few examples of what I am talking about: * the use of original graphics to indicate toilets (bold outlines like fashion sketches, or funny cartoons); * labelling rooms with humorous titles or graphics (rather than “payback”s to dead benefactors or figureheads); * adding suggestions for potential functions for different spaces (rather than calling the space “silent study”, try a pavilion for quiet reflection and last minute exam swatting or the engine-room for solving problems instead of seminar room); * use wallpaper mural or a handpainted mural to direct the use of a room (or why not use the colours of the thinking hats matched with a graphic or quotes). The important thing is to not take things too seriously.

Spaces in schools really are quite temporary (no matter how much money you have invested in the construction programmes and what the master plan says) – each year rooms are reassigned, needs change and so on. Signage is equally temporary, so experiment, consult your students, choose a theme. The most important thing is to encourage engagement with learning, and often a new tact is a great way to renew interest and revitalise an old space.

2. Books should still  maintain a presence in the 21st Century design.

From time to time, I hear people dismissing books as old pedagogy and that space does not need to be allocated to the display and storage of hard copies of books. Nothing in my experience and travels seems to support this zealous approach to purging the book from the modern school.

The new designs have maintained spaces dedicated to print materials in a variety of ways. One Finish school created a bookshop feel for their collection by assigning a space off the communal cafeteria to the library. Large glass door slid back, allowing free flow from the cafeteria. The most current literature was displayed prominently like the latest best sellers, whilst research materials were accessed from shelves at the back (still using the usual catalogue system). There was no need to provide tables and chairs, the cafeteria did that job.

Another very high tech and spec academy placed a library space at the centre of the main circulation area. Fiction was prominently displayed for study and recreational purposes. Interestingly, this space was a designated “IT free zone”. You went here to use the unique resource of books and interactions with other people.

Libraries were also in the most unexpected of places. This is the library space in the food hall at the airport in Amsterdam. Yes, the books were real.


All in all, a few observations could be made about the libraries in new designs. The respect for the role printed texts can play in the learning programmes has not diminished with the increase of web-based resources. The library spaces were not always called libraries, if the trend of labelling throughout the school followed other patterns (i.e. an equally contemporary name was found for the space in keeping with the other learning spaces). Library staff were actively involved in providing resources for staff and students. The space was not banished to dark corners of the building, instead placed in a highly visible area that could be easily accessed by students. Books were prominently displayed, and lastly, the librarian had a strict (almost ruthless) culling process. Only the best and newest books were kept on the shelves, with older copies of still current books sent into the classrooms to be used by teachers with their classes (including cutting them up or using them in art projects or allowing students to borrow on an honour system, if they lack research resources at home). And probably the most encouraging thing of all, in each of the schools I visited, the library was as alive as the other parts of the schools.

3. The X and Y Factors

One of the findings of my research was the importance of human relationships in the creation of learning environments, and in particular, the nature of the informal learning relationships that occur with the classroom. Another key finding was the role transformational leadership approaches play in fostering positive relationships and the creation of a consistent learning culture.

Over the past few weeks, I have had time to reflect on these findings in the light of a range of European and British schools. Without a doubt, the power of positive relationships was paramount in the schools that both appeared and were measured as being highly effective. These relationships were genuine, powerful and consistent. The focus was upon learning and how to foster the potential in each student, without losing sight of the individual humanity of each person. Belonging and developing personal, real and individually-owned attachment to the work of learning were key to cultures of the schools. The notion that “you have to love kids and love learning” was repeated in all of the different schools.

In each of the schools, the leadership of the principal (head teacher) was obvious, no matter how large the school. These leaders demonstrated characteristics usually associated with transformational leadership styles. We were often hosted by executives other than the principal, yet it was clear staff and students had a shared understanding of the school’s culture and direction, and this understanding had been incorporated into the individuals’ way of doing things.

Although the two factors of relationships and leaderships are vital to the growth of an effective school, the real Y Factor was the student’s attitude towards their education. Without fail, the most impressive testimonies to the success of a learning culture were spoken by students who wanted their education as much, if not more so, than the adults in their lives. These students from Finland, Sweden, Denmark and the UK spoke with a passion for their own learning. They were not necessarily the brightest or the most important students, but all were students who had constructed their own educational paradigm that was in synch with the school and the national system. Interestingly, the most academically gifted students I meet were in a highly selective school that was in the very worst of conditions. However, what they said was not different to students from other schools.

Whilst it was clear that these students were not necessarily going to find the whole schooling process a straightforward path, there was a refreshing commitment to doing their best and maximising their own opportunities and achievements. Maybe these were the types of students who are typically chosen by teachers to co-host visitors from abroad, but without doubt these are the students that are going to succeed because of their share of the Y Factor.

Space, flexibility and relationships matter.

One of my personal goals in visiting schools in Europe and Britain was to see if my research findings might apply in other non-Australian school contexts. Given my experiences of the schools and university spaces have been brief, which lends caution to any comments I make, there was significant correlation between the Australian and European experience in terms of what matters and what makes a difference in the learning environment. Very briefly, my research identified a number of factors that influenced the creation of effective learning environments. These factors could be summarised under the three key areas of architectural features and principles, leadership and contextual elements.

Broadly speaking, the European examples that I visited emphasised these very factors. In the realm of architectural principles, flexibility and access to spaces that are large enough to carry out the activity were emphasised. Leadership of learning and pedagogy from the principal/head teacher was non-negotatiable. School context, both in terms of the student community profile and the school’s own culture, made each school different from the next. It also reminded the visitor that a “cookie cutter” approach to designing schools is not possible nor desirable, if you want a school to be owned by the students and staff who work there. It is an economic reality that organisations like schools cannot provide unlimited space for learning, therefore, creating spaces that can be either shared or re-purposed during the day is vital.

One lesson to be learnt from a very innovative environment in Denmark is be cautious of creating a space that has only one function. In this school had originally created an open lecture/auditorium space in the centre of the building. However, this space was later enclosed to facilitate the desire from teachers for a more theatre-like environment that did not disturb other classes. As a result, this large communal area is timetabled or booked by classes and cannot be used in a more flexible, spontaneous manner. The school has also lost access to the original concept for the space – it would take firm leadership to return the space to the open area it was once was.

In Delft there is an exciting example of a space for community learning. A public library has been established in the city centre, but it is more than a lending library. It provides a space for gatherings in the tiered seating area that also doubles as the stairway to the first floor and cafe. A video wall provides information and ambient images for the quiet reading area (complete with comfortable armchairs). On a wet Saturday morning it was alive with family groups, playing and reading together. In one section an artist in residence works and conducts workshops for the community. Whilst it is a visionary idea for the local community, spaces such as these continue to struggle for funding that will sustain this important community asset.