Push to phase out ‘a 40-year-old fad’ in Victorian classrooms

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Hundreds of Victorian students could be left to learn in distracting and noisy open-plan classrooms, despite a move away from the outdated design.

The Grattan Institute has called for a statewide audit of public schools to identify and fix open-plan classrooms after the NSW government recently moved to cease construction of the spaces, now dismissed as a “40-year-old fad” unsuitable for learning.

An open-plan learning space, which has now been labelled unsuitable for learning.

The Victorian government now constructs “flexible learning spaces”, which allow for open-plan rooms to be segmented with soundproof walls.

But the independent think tank says it is aware of a number of schools in the state that don’t have genuinely flexible classrooms, including some built quite recently.

Grattan Institute education program director Jordana Hunter said Victoria urgently needed to audit existing school buildings and rectify learning spaces that didn’t meet learning requirements.

“It is simply unfair to relegate some children and teachers to learning spaces that aren’t fit for purpose,” she said.

Open-plan classrooms, housing dozens of students in one large room, were popularised in the 1970s as a collaborative approach for learning. Many schools have since adapted buildings with soundproof sliding walls to create smaller areas, known as flexible learning spaces.

A University of Melbourne study on the effect of classroom environments on literacy development found some students showed slower rates of literacy acquisition when learning in open-plan classrooms. This was particularly evident in students with weak listening or attention skills.

Study co-author associate professor Dani Tomlin said there would be a small group of children in every remaining open-plan classroom who would not be learning at their optimal rate. She said an audit would be helpful to bring all classrooms up to standard.

“This is quite simply resolved,” she said. “We don’t need to build new buildings, we just need to make some minor amendments to make them the very flexible spaces that give teachers exactly what they need in the classroom environment.”

Barrawang Primary School principal Alisha Campbell in one of her school’s flexible learning spaces.Credit: Justin McManus

Principal Alisha Campbell has worked in open-plan and flexible learning spaces and said both could work with appropriate procedures.

But she said many teachers had not been trained how to use the spaces effectively and she had seen “disastrous” examples at some schools.

Campbell heads the new Wollert school, Barrawang Primary, which features flexible learning spaces with soundproofing and glass barriers to reduce audio and visual distraction. In Barrawang’s case, Campbell said the Victorian School Building Authority got the design right.

“We still have 100 students within a learning space, but you would never know,” she said. “The ceiling height and insulation are very conducive to a calm learning environment.”

Campbell said an audit of existing classrooms would be useful, but the government also needed to conduct research on best teaching practice for flexible spaces.

“Because at the moment, what I find is that we’re we’re all just guessing,” she said. “We’re just trying to do our best with what we’ve got.”

The NSW Education Department wrote to the NSW Teachers Federation in May saying open-plan classrooms would no longer be built.

A spokesperson said the department was now assessing the number of schools with open-plan classrooms to determine if flexible options were required.

A Victorian Education Department spokesperson said the school building authority engaged with education design specialists and academics to inform future designs, including open and adaptable learning spaces.

It also worked with schools on a case-by-case basis to improve teaching spaces where required.

A Melbourne Archdiocese Catholic Schools spokesperson said no open-plan classrooms had been built since 2017.

An assessment of all 265 Catholic primary schools completed last year revealed that about 16 campuses are yet to adapt some open-plan classrooms.

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