• Central location
• Small, two-storey campus
• Close to public transport links
• Approachable, passionate and innovative head teacher
EtonHouse Orchard is full of surprises. Here’s a school that is as far removed as you can get from a typical international campus. You walk straight into a two-storey building from the pavement of a busy high street – and probably with low expectations. There’s no sweeping driveway, grand entrance, views across playing fields and swimming pools, or high-rise classroom blocks. Instead, you walk through a glass door into a small reception area with one of the warmest greetings we have received at a school. It may not feel particularly ‘school-like’ but it is bright, modern and inviting.
Founding principal Alec Jiggins said: “We’ve got a beautiful, central location, one where we can take small groups of students out on public transport or by foot to a variety of nearby locations. We want them to interact with nature and get their hands dirty at places such as the Botanic Gardens. I’m a geographer, so I don’t like to be inside all day – and I don’t expect my students to be either!”
We soon discovered that there is far more to EtonHouse Orchard that meets the eye – and the adage “Don’t judge a book by its cover” springs to mind. As we walked around the school, we came face to face to with an exciting learning hub that reimagines the classroom and has big ideas for small spaces.
• Creative learning environments
• Lack of outdoor space and sports facilities
• Central Piazza designed for inquiry-based learning
EtonHouse has transformed a former cafe, museum of art and design, and cigar and whisky bar into a modern learning environment with flexible classroom spaces. The school has preserved some of the original features, including polished concrete floors, wooden wall panelling, industrial sinks, but successfully redeveloped the two long corridors of this double-storey campus into a 21st century school – and there’s not a whiff of cigar smoke in the air.
There’s key card-only access from the reception into the main school, where you walk straight into a contemporary, uncluttered art studio. While the windows are frosted up to head-height to screen students from the high street, it’s a well-lit room with benches, stools and easels. We particularly liked the height adjustable benches, which makes this studio accessible for students of all ages from five through to 18 years.
Jiggins says: “At EtonHouse, art is core to how students express themselves and look at the world around them.”
The long corridor of the ground floor is lined with mid-sized classrooms for Years 1 to 5 and leads to a fitness studio at the end. It’s not a huge space but has all the facilities needed for one of two weekly PE lessons on the timetable, which may focus on yoga, martial arts, TRX, bouldering or general fitness. Students also have a weekly PE lesson in rugby, tennis, hockey or other team sports at a location, 10 minutes away.
There’s a food lab on this level, used for break times and food tech classes, and this opens out onto a small garden where students will grow plants and herbs. We were interested to hear about Jiggins’ plans to teach food provenance, with lessons on the agenda including making simple cheeses after visiting a local dairy farm.
A stand-out feature in the main corridor is a large, wall-mounted marble maze, where students can use wood, sticks and plastic pipes to create a marble run. Whether it’s being used as a hands-on science activity or for an exciting engineering challenge, we imagine this will be popular with all students.
We then took the small escalator up to the second floor, which has reinvented a small space with some impressive specialist learning zones. There’s a science lab that’s equipped for physics, chemistry and biology from the PYP through to the IBDP, with everything from a plasma ball to an emergency shower. There’s also a makerspace equipped with workshop tools, 3D printers, power tools, computers and Lego robotics kits.
Jiggins says: “When you do, is when you really understand. We have made this makerspace accessible to all children to give them the vital skills they need to get by in today’s world. Children will go from the spaghetti marshmallow challenge through to 3D printing and CAD design.”
The school’s centrepiece is the Piazza, a large open plan space which fosters the town square concept used in Reggio Emilia schools. There’s a black box theatre (ideal for a school that doesn’t have the space for a hall or theatre); a music area with keyboards, string, percussion and wind instruments; a small stage; and a variety of seating areas. The school talks a lot about creative thinking and collaboration, and we felt that the Piazza has both the permanent and transformative spaces needed for students to explore and create individually and within groups.
Jiggins says: “This is a focal point of the school, where students can discuss, relax, read, perform and engage. We will hold a cultural café here every month, when students can share their learning with parents, perform something, read a poem, etc.”
Beyond the Piazza, there are several rooms designed for IGCSE and IBDP students, which Jiggins refers to as “secondary learning environments, not classrooms”, as well as a learning studio where secondary students can work on projects and homework during their free periods.
Outside, there’s a small drop off circle for cars, which is also used during school hours as a play area, as well as a long strip of land at the back of the building. It’s all fairly barren at the moment but there are plans to build water and sand play areas to give primary students some much-needed outdoor space. The school expects that most secondary students will take advantage of their privilege to leave the school during break times.
We visited the campus before it officially opened to students and classrooms were laid out for a forthcoming open day. As you’d expect from a new school, the rooms are spotless, and the equipment has no signs of wear and tear. There were no students on campus or lessons in progress for us to assess this school on. However, based on the positive messages and student artwork on the walls – as well as the passion and enthusiasm that exudes from Jiggins – there was a strongly positive school climate here.
• One class per year group
• Well-equipped specialist classrooms
• Flexible learning spaces for secondary students
As you’d expect at a school offering the PYP, all primary classrooms have round tables and a break-out area for inquiry-based, collaborative learning. There’s one class per year group, with each room equipped interactive projectors, iPads and age-appropriate learning resources. We really liked the 360-degree cameras, which allow students to create virtual-reality-like experiences and think about different perspectives on situations such as bullying.
Classrooms were laid out for an open day with examples of a PYP class, including squishy circuits, which use conductive and insulating play dough to teach the basics of electrical circuit; Bee-Bots, a classroom-friendly floor robot that uses the iPad to teach robotics; and the Swift Playground app that teaches basic coding.
Moving upstairs to the secondary school, we explored a cluster of rooms that challenge the conventional classroom. Don’t expect to see teachers standing at the front of the classroom with students sitting in rows behind desks. Instead, students will move between The Mountaintop, which has been designed for Dragon’s Den-style presentations and feedback; The Boardroom, where students can move between the sofa, beanbags and a conference table; and The Campfire, complete with beanbags arranged in a circle, designed for discussion, sharing ideas, analysing literature and problems.
Jiggins says: “There is no maths room or English room. Instead, teachers will book the rooms depending on what they’re trying to achieve. These spaces try to replicate working environments you’d find in places such as Amazon and Google. Why? Because we learn better, and we work better in a social environment.”
As well offering students comfortable learning spaces, EtonHouse Orchard is encouraging its seniors to develop “skills of autonomous learning at a much younger age”. Jiggins and his team have certainly embraced this flexible seating style, and we will watch with interest how and if it helps students to learn.
Meeting the head
Read our interview with head teacher Alec Jiggins here.
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