Caroline Whalley: As a society we need to define what we want from our schools

As parents, we are familiar with the challenges of making a decision about what school is best for our child. But as a society, we are increasingly divided about the types of schools and learning environments we need to build to achieve the best outcomes for all the people in our diverse communities. We must nevertheless be increasingly ambitious. We are competing in a global education market and young people need to know that we are doing all we can to give them the facilities they need to prepare for this rapidly changing world.

We know something about what makes good schools – strong leadership from the headteacher, the quality of learning and teaching that takes place, and the range of out-of- hours activities available. We know that school buildings will have little impact on achievement and well- being without that leadership – it is staff that make buildings come to life.

With an unprecedented investment in programmes like “Building Schools for the Future”, we need a national debate about what we mean by great schools, to create a 50-year vision for school estate planning, ensuring the buildings are fit for generations to come. This also needs to take into account the growing role of schools as a community hub. They’re not just a place for children to learn between 9am and 4pm, but an opportunity for a wide range of other activities Given the current financial climate, we have to get this right.

School environments have a major role to play in tackling social inequality. They can improve the life chances of children and young people, but we need to develop a more robust evidence base about what creates a truly great school, and get this information out to everyone, including parents, children and the wider community.

All this must happen against the backdrop of seismic changes going on in the world we live in. The way our children learn, and how teachers teach, has been transformed from when most of us were at school. The use of technology and new media is now a part of young people’s lives, which means education has to develop a new way of teaching.

Dr Caroline Whalley, chair of the British Council for School Environments, speaks today at the launch of the ‘Great Schools’ campaign