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Professor Peter Barrett

HEAD Study of Schools

The HEAD Project (Holistic Evidence and Design) is a research study of the impacts of the built environment dimension of UK Primary schools (4-11 yrs) on the learning rates of pupils.  This is a simple aim, but has actually proved to be quite a knotty problem.  There is a wealth of published material on the impacts of aspects such as temperature and air quality on human functioning in general and on those in schools in particular.  There are many strongly held views too, but a bit of a vacuum around impirical evidence of what actually does impact on learning rates in the classroom, studied "in the wild". In Phase 1 of the project we have found significant impacts attached to the building design and use of schools and these have been published (summary included at link) in a peer reviewed refereed journal.  Together these scale to explaining 25% of the variation in learning achieved by pupils in the previous year. A range of six factors emerged as being particularly important and include aspects relevant to building design (eg buiding orientation), but also use-related factors (eg the colour of the classrooms and the visual complexity of the spaces).  In several cases the results have not been entirely as expected! This paper was the most downloaded paper in 2013 for this journal and was subsequently selected as one of three best papers out of 1300 submitted to the jourrnal.

The work underpinning this study (click link for Study Foundations) has been in train since 2007.  Previous work on Revaluing Construction had highlighted the massive scale of the built environment and the paucity of evidence of the value running from this.  This led to an initiative to address this gap by taking a user's view, via their senses and mediated by their brain.  A multi-disciplinary Senses-Brain-Spaces workshop was held and a rich variety of prspectives gathered. This stimulated a series of interactions with Manchester City Council around school design via post occupancy evaluations and action research.  A large amount of literature and numerous case studies were also synthesised into a report.  It became clear that to compete with all the other pressures in the design process, hard evidence of impacts was needed so.  This led to the HEAD Project, (click link for Project Details) with the initial support of Nightingale Associates, followed by funding from the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. The work is being prosecuted by a multidisciplinary research team, with the support of an international Sounding Panel of experts.

The results were published to the technical press in the Autumn of 2012, but on New Year's Eve the Guardian Newpaper published an article of their web pages and this has led to a reasonable amount of news coverage (clink link for more information).  Initially this focused on UK politics, but seems to be centring now on the opportunities the research offers teachers, designers and policy-makers to create good learning environements for school children.

The second phase of the project, with an expanded sample and observational opportunities, is now in train and is due to be completed by the end of 2014.  This has been informed by an international, multidiscipolinary steering group. A report of the meeting with them is vailable here.