08.08.2012 FROM OLD TO NEW

FROM OLD TO NEW – Things worth to consider before the private school is moving in. 

This article was published in Friskolebladet 2012, no. 8, 14 May 2012

Today approximately 100,000 children attend a private school in Denmark. There are about 500 of them throughout the country. During the past couple of years, more have come. A considerable number of them are established in the countryside where the government has chosen to close down a public school. Often the new school moves into the building of an old one.

All private schools start out by having big ambitions about establishing a new, unique school culture and very often also a new practice. The parents are engaged in the project. Teachers and managers are being motivated. They have to get started and preferably be ready to move in before the first day of school in August.

But often they are moving into old buildings with a space design that does not correlate to their wishes for the educational working processes. This is due to the fact that approximately 50 per cent of Denmark’s primary schools are more than 50 years old. And when primary schools are being closed, it is rarely the new ones that are first in line. For the new schools in the old buildings, the many tasks in connection to running a school often end up taking focus away from the physical space. Suddenly they no longer remember the intentions they had about creating a different kind of school before moving in.

That is the reason for the title of the article and for these lines. There are a number of things in connection to the desired interaction you wish to foster in the “old” buildings that might be worth considering. Just as it can be with considering how and why optimisation analyses are able to find vacant space for new functions. The considerations are of course also relevant for the private schools that have been running for a number of years, but which might need to be more critical and consider how space for new practices and functions is created and how it is possible to support and stimulate those new practices through a new way of organising space.

Quit the ownership of square meters

Many of the parents engaged in the school and the management and teachers who have chosen to work there might wish for diversity in the educational approaches rather than to stick to the traditional class based learning. Nevertheless, it can be hard a hard task for a new school located in old buildings. A building that was originally built for 1 teacher to teach 1 class in 1 room, the classrooms being quite similar, rectangular, and often fairly small, located next to one another along the corridor in a 70’s school with one or two floors..

Imagine a typical corridor with four to five classrooms in a line. On the door it says something like 1A or 2B. This means that it belongs to someone. The interesting part is that these “owned” classrooms are often only used 65-70 per cent of a normal school day (see text box).  During the morning and especially the afternoon, the rooms are often left empty. Also in the middle of the day rooms are often vacant. The students are elsewhere due to their schedules – maybe playing in gym, cooking in the kitchen, doing experiments in the physics lab or going out on an excursion.

Even though the space that is the most used of the school is the classrooms, our observations show that the classrooms belonging to approximately 6th grade and upwards are empty more than 1/3 of the time (see text box). The key figures are from observations carried out in primary schools, but our qualified guess is that without a ‘mental rebuilding’ before moving in, the numbers will be about the same for the newly established private school.

What if those who moved into the new private school would spend some time considering what could happen if the class did not have the traditional ownership of a classroom, but instead the students of the same year would share a number of rooms? That way, the four to five fairly similar rooms that would normally belong to a class each could instead be designed to support different needs for teaching and learning. The Auditorium. The Journalistic Bureau. The Common Room. The Silent Room. Only your imagination (and budget) will set the limit.

It is always possible to find space for adult workplaces

Another example is the wish for establishing attractive workplaces which has been an important topic within the school community for years. The intention is to create a better collaboration and knowledge sharing between teachers, to strengthen team based education, and to foster a practice where more teacher choose to stay at the school when preparing their teaching. When establishing a new private school, it might also be intended for the teachers to be present when the school opens and closes so they thereby contribute to a close relationship between the school and the homes of the children. In connection to our consulting, we have made observations of how students and teachers in the primary school use and behave in the different areas of the school: the classrooms, the common rooms, the corridors, the physics lab, and so on during a normal school day. In all the observations, we have found a lot of vacant space. In most of the cases it is possible for the schools to establish well-functioning group rooms and workstations for the personnel by carrying out rather simple changes as to how the school uses its space

Share facilities with the neighbour schools

A thirds example is about classrooms with special equipment. The music room, the physics lab, and the gym are often among the most expensive rooms at a school, but at the same time they are usually the ones that are used the least, especially at small schools with only a few classes starting each year. (See text box) If a private school is about to upgrade these rooms or built new ones, it might be worth considering if they could instead rent the facilities of another school or encourage other schools to help finance the rooms and invite them to use them. In the previously mentioned model, there will be extra costs in connection to time and transportation and of the students, but it is reasonable to suggest that it is counterbalanced by the big investments and the relatively small business that would come out of establishing the rooms and upgrading them from time to time.  In the other model, they will have to let go of their ownership of their rooms and would frequently have visitors from other schools. Last but not least it is worth considering how different online teaching courses and virtual laboratories can become part of some courses and to some extend be an alternative to buying expensive equipment.

More functions under the same roof

Many private schools have become private schools due to demographics and logistics. They have been established in an area with a decrease in the number of children and an increase in the population spread together with a limited amount of day care opportunities for the youngest children. It is typically an area where the private day care takes place in private housing.  Altogether this means there it might be of interest to create space for the day care in the new private school and thereby ease the logistics for the parents, create continuity for the children, and increase collegiality for the teachers and day care personnel.   But it is also worth to consider other possibilities. People living in the countryside often have to drive quite far to get to work. If there is unused space at a school, it might therefore also be relevant to consider the possibilities of and test the interest for establishing an office hotel where parents and maybe others from the county working far away who could save time on transportation one or more ways a week while being close to the children and becoming part of a social and work related community with other parents from the school.

If you are building new buildings

If the private school needs rebuilding or an entire new building, here goes a last piece of advice. In the process that lies between the decision and when a competition programme or a building programme has been developed for an architectural competition or a total enterprise, it is typically wished to have different  user involving processes and needs analyses carried out. It is of course of high importance to get to an agreement about what the new space of the private school should be used for.

Nevertheless, if it is not prioritised to work on a correlation between function and space for visual design principles or function descriptions, the result of the user involvement will often become an unclear target board for the architects who are to make a proposal for the project. The consequence is that the architects who make a proposal for the project do not perceive the user needs as something binding. Architects typically do not mind this. It gives them free hands to be innovative. It may turn out to be a problem for the private school that has invested a lot of time in and commitment to the task, though, if they no longer recognise the wishes they had during the user involvement process.

Last but not least some basic rules for the good process:

  • Formulate vision and success criteria before you think about changes
  • Identify needs and group characteristics before you start thinking about solutions
  • Get insight into facts so you will not believe in myths!
  • Management involvement is a condition for user involvement
  • User involvement is a condition for changing ownership


Do you want your educational intentions and your educational practise to shine through the space you will be moving into or do you want the space to influence your educational ways? Many things are set before the actual moving in.


By Morten Fisker.