Blog: Listening to learn – Adam McGhee, Sheppard Robson

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The Education Buildings Scotland Conference seeks to bring together different sectors across the learning estate to celebrate what works in re-thinking spaces for learning. It allows them to share insights on what’s possible to support improvement. A&DS has invited a number of design professionals to share their ideas. The focus of the blogs is on the voice of young people. In this blog Adam McGhee, Partner, Sheppard Robson, writes about how to listen to learners to create spaces that support personalised learning and reflect our changing learning provision.

The way we design learning spaces has changed significantly as architects respond to a rapidly evolving educational landscape. It is increasingly clear that in order to build spaces that truly work young people’s views and experiences must drive change in how we approach design.

Landmark Educational Spaces

At Sheppard Robson, where one of our key focuses is creating landmark educational spaces, we have worked hard to embrace this sea-change and all its implications. This is exemplified by ground-breaking schemes such as the Barony Campus (East Ayrshire Council). Here, we embarked on an unprecedented level of consultation, instigating comprehensive conversations involving not only the young people who will ultimately be the end-users of the campus, but also parents, teachers, headteachers, sports clubs, politicians, employers and landowners.

The initial brief detailed East Ayrshire Council’s ambitious vision for a £68m, 23,000 sq.m. learning campus comprising a secondary school for 1,633 pupils; a 517 place primary school, nursery and an 80 place supported-learning centre as well as 30 places for Special Educational Needs students. With the Campus to be situated on a 19.8 hectare urban fringe site, it would consolidate five disparate schools; creating an education ‘centre of excellence’ with a range of learning environments within a (mostly) corridor-free, linked, chain of buildings.

Listening to young people and community

Our detailed consultation process began with the young people and the local community, who, notably, had a role in selecting the design team whose approach best matched their vision. We planned and executed an inclusive process, giving a platform for every voice to be heard and setting out a vision for Barony Campus that would raise the bar in education design. We wanted to integrate high academic ambition with health, wellbeing and nurture; as well as excellent community sports facilities.

Using a local engagement consultant to help to unlock relationships between two historically separate communities –  who will share the school, we presented to both communities and held active conversations with the end users of the campus and the wider community – long before beginning to design.

These conversations translated into an exceptionally detailed further brief, which, perhaps uniquely, had the full support of pupils, parents, teachers and the wider community from the outset.

Through these engagement sessions, what became very clear was that ‘variety’ would be the key to responding well to young learners’ needs, allowing them to adapt the environment to suit the subject, or style of learning, whether that was group work, collaboration or simply a quiet, nurturing space to study. It was also vital that they had choices for socialising; flexibility in learning and felt supported and valued.

Personalised Learning and Public Access

Personalising learning in this way addressed individual students in the wider context of the whole school; and challenged each space to be a flexible, active environment. We realised that creating a range of spaces of varying scale was crucial to achieving this; avoiding the standard ‘corridor and classroom’ sterility. What resulted  was ‘class-bases’, studios, break-out areas, learning plazas and corridors only used in a stimulating way and where absolutely necessary.

Public access has been maintained around the site and along the riverside including access to a new running track and world class sports pitch facilities.

Due to complete in time for the 2020 academic year, we are confident that our response to the brief has listened to the voices of the very many stakeholders in this ambitious and aspirational project. Consultation for educational design must never forget the most important voices of all – the learners. Each and every design experience ultimately acts as a learning curve for both architect and client and with education moving so quickly, the spaces we create must too.


Adam McGhee, Partner, Sheppard Robson

Image: Barony Campus will offer a state-of-the-art learning and teaching environment to enable every child and young person to reach their full potential.

Find out more about the Education Buildings Scotland Conference here. 

20 Inspiring Learning Spaces

A leaflet summarising the learning from 20 individual Inspiring Please Spaces projects, supporting the Inspiring Learning Spaces publication.

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