As Auckland’s King’s School approaches its centenary, the opening of one of its most important buildings in its long history, is one that has been a personal highlight for me through my 25 years of headship. The new Centennial Building, in the centre of the school, will play an important role in providing students with an edge in meeting their needs for the next century.
It is a world-class facility and we should pay tribute, not only to the Board’s vision and tenacity when faced with the realities of the poor state of the Hanna Block, but also to the generosity and commitment shown by our community and donors in making it a reality.
This new building, now linking the Lighthouse, Kerridge and Harrison Blocks in a way that was not previously possible, has provided us with an additional 5,000 square metres of large, light-filled classrooms, music studios and discussion areas.
However, despite the benefit these generous spaces provide us, the Board remains firm that the school will not increase its current roll, maintaining its staff: student ratio of 1:11.
I admire the words of Professor Bryan Lawson (Professor Emeritus of Architecture, University of Sheffield, UK) and his view of the importance of getting a building right in a school:
“Of all the projects an architect can be asked to design, none can be more interesting and challenging than a school – in which the most important of all human activities, the education and development of our children, takes place. That activity is simultaneously purposive, planned and controlled, and yet also subtle, delicate and easily disturbed.
“We know precisely what we want to achieve in a school and yet we are clearly uncertain as to how it should be realized. Critically, the success of education depends so much on the quality of the student/teacher relationships. This then requires an architect who is sensitive to human relationships and aware of how to promote and foster them through the built environment.”
There were many planning discussions with the Board and Warren and Mahoney, our architects, to ensure that this relationship-building was paramount in our brief and we are delighted in the way in which the architects embraced this. What we now have are spaces that encourage collaboration with others, while at the same time, allow for more intimate spaces for individual and reflective learning.
I am concerned with the current trend in the State system of the so-called open plan ‘modern learning environments’ being implemented, with some 50 to 100 children to a room.
The Ministry of Education has already spent hundreds of millions in its shift towards these modern learning environments (MLEs) or now recently referred to as, flexible learning spaces. Open plan classrooms have been pursued through the Canterbury schools rebuild programmes because it is thought they allow teachers greater flexibility than single-cell classrooms. However, the Ministry’s own research makes clear simply changing the shape of buildings alone will not lead to better education.
Ministry Deputy Secretary, Katrina Casey says 21st-century learning is about more than just knocking down walls. Although flexible spaces can sometimes facilitate more student-led learning than traditional classrooms.
“It is not the space that determines purposeful and focused relationships between teachers and their students. Strong relationships with students are the core of good teaching.”
Research tells us that young children need to have the feeling of safety and belonging that a small class size and one single teacher can provide. Yes, we need to create flexible spaces to allow our students to break out of their classroom and work both individually and in groups, but not at the expense of their relationship with their classroom teacher. I want my teachers to really know the boys in their care.
Recently I was shocked by a response from one of the young boys I was interviewing to gain entrance to King’s. I asked him what I thought was an easy question to settle his nerves: “Who is your teacher?” Far from being an easy question, the boy was visibly confused and unsure how to answer. The reality is he didn’t know who his teacher was, as he came from an environment at his primary school where there were several teachers in the room.
I strongly believe that boys need to have a close relationship with their teachers in order to effectively learn. That is why we keep our staff: student ratio at the lowest in the country and how we ensure no boy “falls through the net”, as many parents from State schools report to me is happening.
The new Centennial Building allows a flow now from the individual classrooms into open flexible spaces, which can be used by boys and staff from across the school. It is quite frankly, the best of both worlds.