Learning Environments

The 6 Vital Design Elements of School Design

Have you ever thought about how 64 million European children spend more time at school than anywhere else other than their own home? 

In total, they attend approximately 200 school days each year, which corresponds to almost one full year inside a classroom throughout their primary school years¹. So how do we go about designing those classrooms to be healthier and more supportive of great learning outcomes?

This is a question that is perhaps more important than ever, as Europe and the UK are soon to see a boom in the construction and renovation of schools not experienced since the 1970s. What a tremendous opportunity this is for both architects and educators to rethink what an educational facility should be and how the physical environment can be designed to have a positive impact on learning.

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New research

Recent research conducted by Professor Peter Barrett and his team of school design experts at the University of Salford, UK, showed clear evidence that well-designed primary schools can substantially boost children’s academic performance in reading, writing and maths.

Their ground-breaking study, the HEAD Project (Holistic Evidence and Design) (2), concluded that differences in the physical characteristics of classrooms explained 16% of the variation in learning progress over a year for the 3766 students included in the study. Put simply, the better designed the classroom, the better children do academically.

The vital design elements

The findings outlined in the HEAD study reveal that certain design elements are intrinsic to improving learning in the classroom. These are:

This is the first time that clear evidence of the effect on users of the overall design of the physical learning space has been isolated in real life situations. In the past, specific aspects such as air quality have been studied, but how it all comes together for real people in real spaces has, until now, been based on gut-feeling and wishful thinking.

For three years, researchers on the HEAD project carried out detailed surveys of 153 classrooms from 27 diverse schools and collected performance statistics for pupils studying in those spaces.

The importance of sensory factors

The study considered a wide range of sensory factors and used multilevel statistical modelling to isolate the effects of classroom design from other factors, such as the pupils themselves and their teachers.

As noted by researchers in the report, “Surprisingly, whole-school factors (e.g. size, navigation routes, specialist facilities, play facilities) do not seem to be anywhere near as important as the design of the individual classrooms. The message is that, first and foremost, each classroom has to be well designed.”

In our e-book Building Better Schools: Six Ways To Help Our Children Learn you will find practical guidelines on how to implement the HEAD findings in your next educational facility project.

Whilst reading those guidelines, why not consider how these design principles (for optimal learning outcomes) could also be applied to other types of buildings - creating better healthcare facilities, better work spaces and better living places etc.


  1. SINPHONIE final report
  2. Clever Classrooms – Summary Report of the HEAD Project 

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