Making spaces

High quality, low cost solutions for creating more learning spaces in schools

Finding spaces for small group and individual learning at a reasonable cost is a pressing issue for schools. Andy Homden and Philip Gardner think that strategic planning and good design provide the way forward.

Personalised learning

One of the most important themes emerging from the mainstream of  educational debate since the millennium is the idea of  ‘personalised learning’. Digital approaches to flipping the classroom, reliable adaptive assessment and sophisticated differentiated teaching are providing some of the answers, freeing up time for teachers to spend working with small groups and individuals.

The pressure for space

However, the expectation that learning should be more personalised has also increased the pressure on the physical spaces within a school. Effective differentiation takes places outside as well as within larger classrooms as schools plan support to meet needs in a range of more individualised programmes. Add the expectations for all students to have greater autonomy on campus, not only to collaborate with peers, but also to conduct self-guided or project-based learning programmes and the pressure mounts still more. Just where are they expected to do all this work?

Additional pressure in international schools

International schools, can be particularly susceptible to growing demands on apparently limited space. With students joining schools at any time of year, spaces are needed for catch up programmes. Provide more online courses in minority subjects or to accommodate students changing schools part way through an examination course. Highly differentiated language acquisition (think EAL and MYP Language B) or mother tongue programmes require larger numbers of smaller spaces for smaller groups. Project work in Science and DT is heavy on space and then there’s the storage  to think about . . .

Unsatisfactory solutions

These issues are widespread and, if anything, becoming more intractable, even in recently built facilities.  However, ‘solutions’ in terms of providing high quality learning spaces for individuals and small groups tend to be reactively rather than proactively thought through, often only addressed  at the end of the year after the main elements of the year’s timetable have been designed and schedulers are scrambling to find larger rooms that are ‘left over’ or unallocated for small groups to use.

This is unsatisfactory and, if we are honest, we know it, but at the end of a long school year, it’s what we end up with.  If a small group makes it on to the timetable at all, their time with their teacher in the following year is likely to be spent in a number of different rooms. Worse, if breakout groups emerge during the course of a lesson, students are often sent off to look for somewhere to work together. After a fruitless search, they often end up at the library, which may or may not be able to accommodate them. Their time has not been used well.

Avoiding an expensive build

Heads of School therefore reluctantly turn to expensive ideas about building as a ‘strategic solution’. However, this should be a last resort. By repurposing underused areas in a school (‘extracting the third space’ on campus) to provide outstanding rather than makeshift learning spaces for individual learners and small classes, the pressure can be relieved and, over time, a campus can be transformed. Reimaging spaces for small group and individual work could and should therefore be part of a long-term strategy to extend a school’s capacity for more personalised learning in a school.

Reimagining small spaces

If we take as our guiding principle that every space in a school building is a potential learning space, here are just three ways in which spaces for small groups and individuals can be reimagined from ‘dead areas’ at a reasonable cost while also providing a real sense of spatial ownership for teachers and students.

1. See through the eyes of students
The above is a slightly deeper circulation space in a central light well. Acoustically protected 3- separate meetings can be used by groups of up to 6, but just as easily 2.

It is a persistent adult misconception that young people won’t use a space if it isn’t ‘aesthetically pleasing’ or ‘organised’. But students will often work perfectly happily sitting on the floor, in a corner, on the stairs or lying on the ground. Clearly that isn’t always desirable but it does mean spaces that adults might not have considered can become useful.  Very useful. A corridor with a niche in it that is a metre or so deep, blind ends to corridors, areas by stairwells can all be used. Often small stores can be opened up directly off the corridor to create a learning booth.

We particularly like finding space vertically by adding ‘Spanish steps’ to a layout.

Calderwood Primary – GIA 2022 Awards Education Project of the Year and Supreme Winner
2. The importance of thinking strategically

Finding spaces for the coming year should not be an after thought. Good solutions need good design and are found by collaborative teams thinking strategically. It’s amazing what you can find when a group has time to think together. Larger underused areas can be sectioned off with furniture, while thoughtful use of fabric gives acoustic benefit allowing a more comfortable focused and quiet area to work in.  These newly discovered spaces can also be personal, discrete and used for mentoring and quiet one-to-one discussions. In this way, previously dead or uninspiring spaces can be made to work hard for the school estate. Staff and students alike love them and they bring a more upbeat and less ‘institutional’ feel to spaces. Often dividing spaces in this way helps with wayfinding and in defining faculty use of otherwise overlooked spaces.

Defining the space or creating groins that push into the central thoroughfare enable little eddies of space that can be used for studying. Here is a concept where a former store was  opened up and used to add two banquette seats, with enough room for 8 students to share and, complemented further with freestanding tables and fabric stools to separate the area from a thoroughfare.

3. Walls not required

Small learning groups and individuals do not need four walls within which to learn! Spaces such as the open dining area seen in our feature picture or this open connecting area can easily be broken into smaller spaces with thoughtful use of well-organised furniture to enable continued educational use of shared areas throughout the day. We have found that informal staff meetings, small group work and individual time all spaces populate these spaces very efficiently. Separation like this can also be achieved in Libraries, Reception spaces and external spaces.

This cosy area, placed in a school’s reception area is used by visitors, for visitor meetings with staff, staff meetings, staff-student and student-student discussions. It adds to the vibrancy of the school and is much more in line with the modern work place, which is, after all, a part of what education is about.

Cost-effective possibilities

With time, collaborative thinking and imagination, the spaces that we need so badly can therefore be found all around us. Cost-effective solutions which also look good can add so much to a school without the need to resort to building more conventional and very expensive extensions. We can also expect that the development of AI will further improve our ability to free up spaces which may be ‘locked away’ in an existing building.


Philip Gardner is Partnership Director, at Space Zero, the award-winning educational design consultancy. 





Former international headteacher, Andy Homden is CEO of Consilium Education, specialisist consultants to startup,new and growing international schools.





All images kindly provided by Space Zero.