“There’s been no rest for the wicked!” declares The Grammar School at Leeds’ (GSAL) vice principal and head of primary school, Gabrielle Solti, having been enlisted just over a year ago to oversee one of the most ambitious transitions in the school’s history, bringing its youngest pupils from Rose Court in Headingley to the school’s main site at Alwoodley Gates.
With the final phase of the project, which aimed to create a single community of pupils from age three to 18, coinciding with national lockdown, Gabrielle was suddenly presented with a whole new set of challenges: “I would say this will be the most interesting year of my headship, of that there’s no question. When we first went into lockdown I just thought, well there’s just going to be things we can’t do now. But somehow, our amazing head of estates and the commitment from governors and colleagues made this happen.”
The sun shone on a warm September afternoon as children played without care. Yet behind these rare scenes of normality, staff have been hard at work to protect them, creatively adapting the curriculum to conform to government guidelines. Asked whether these restrictions would impact students’ education, Gabrielle was confident that her team saw it as just another challenge: “We have good size teams of quality teaching specialists who can really put their heads together to find inventive ways to safely deliver the full curriculum in one shape or another. As adults, yes, we miss a year of our life, but children develop so quickly that losing a year is much more significant for them. This is their time – and even though our hands are tied, we’re committed to giving them the best education we can.”
Yet, silver linings have been drawn from the past months of distanced learning. In many of the classrooms we pass, children are confidently tapping away on iPads and laptops taken from the numerous banks of electronics that trundle the corridors. “Virtual learning was always coming”, says Gabrielle, “but the pandemic has just sped things up. The experience we have all gained from virtual learning has helped us all develop quickly in a short space of time as we’ve continued to build this technology into our day-to-day to support the students’ learning.”
The electronics are not the only thing on the move – new flexible furniture is wheeling its way across classrooms. From desks to shelving, the equipment can be configured for different size groups or taken apart completely if teachers want the whole space. Though desks are all currently front facing, there is huge potential for collaborative learning.
Previously dark corridors have been transformed into bright, airy spaces with skylight windows and colourful forest-themed wall vinyl’s: visual metaphors of growth designed to inspire and impart a sense of wonder. Classrooms have been completely revamped, with new carpets, ceilings, lighting and furniture to make safe learning zones for the early years children: “And we’ve added just that little bit more security,” Gabrielle reassures me, as she fumbles with a knee-high gate, which perhaps works a little too well.
A new courtyard playground constructed around inside-outside classrooms accommodates the youngest learners. Supported by teachers, nursery children dip freely in and out of activity stations, choosing how they want to learn. We’re told this free play is far from random – flexible stations set up by teachers are based on the weekly theme of lessons, and students are encouraged to explore what interests them: “Our youngest students begin their educational journey by learning through play, before transitioning into more structured learning, which still retains that ‘hands on’ element as they grow.”
Peering into the classrooms, we spot one of the more unorthodox contraptions at work. A sea of tiny heads bob from side to side – the children are seated on state-of-the-art ‘wobble chairs’, built to safely move with them: “We were very much able to create our early years environments based on the best way children learn. Children don’t sit still at this age; you want to enable their bodies to have natural movement which stimulates brain flow.”
Subtle design choices are at work which make the children feel at ease, as they busy themselves among the bookcases in the new library, which have been built at their height, or eat convivially in the new dining space, which doesn’t dwarf them as the main refectory might.
Every lesson we pass is lively – perhaps, a little too lively I contend: “Conversation is important in lessons – we question the ideal of silent classrooms here,” maintains Gabrielle. “We’re human beings, we learn by talking and that helps us develop our ideas.”
Faint chants of “chop banana, chop chop banana!” grow as we approach the music departments newly created second classroom. Music remains close to Gabrielle’s heart, a passion imparted from her Hungarian Jewish father, Georg Solti, renowned as one the greatest conductors of his generation. “You’re rather tempted to join them, aren’t you?” she suggests, her eyes twinkling as we watch the children excitedly act out rhythmic phrases. I can only agree enviously, as the scratch of chalk echoes from the hushed classrooms of old. “Music at this age is about sounds and rhythms and lessons should be active and lively,” she continues. “You have to be comfortable standing up and speaking to people you don’t know – that’s performing. The more we can help students feel comfortable with that the better.”
The grandest of the recent engineering feats is an archway linking two sides of the school. Bridging the older and younger primary age children, it symbolises the importance GSAL places on year groups supporting one another. As we descend the winding staircase to the new playground, Gabrielle notes: “You do have to be quite fit working here.” The only problem with the playground, is it’s so good, that everyone wants to use it. An elaborate system of rotation is currently in place as COVID restrictions keep the students from descending en masse.
There is a garden area with a patch for vegetables, which will be put to delicious uses in the new food tech classrooms. Playground equipment is adapted to age, with climbing frames installed for each learning stage. The larger of the two is an impressive web of fluorescent bars, which I venture may have put sweat across the brows of health and safety officiates: “We want to keep our children safe, but it’s important to have physical challenge in purposeful play,” Gabrielle ripostes. “When you put children in spaces with nothing, that’s when behavioural issues start, as they’re just bored.”
Lord of the Flies scenarios have so far been averted, with giant avant-garde ‘lolly sticks’ with holes to shoot balls into, multi-sport pitches and spaces for different kinds of play like gymnastics, or for the young Alan Bennett, staging an impromptu lunchtime play. Artificial grass has been laid, ready for the Yorkshire winters Gabrielle’s father Georg so detested when he would make the schlep to visit the in-laws in Roundhay. “By giving them options,” says Gabrielle, “you are letting them know they can be themselves.”
“We’re copying each other” a young student tells me, as she sets the pace in a frantic P.E. exercise in mirrored dancing. “You’re going too fast!” exclaims her classmate, who has been designated her ‘talk partner’ for the week. “We learn from working with different personalities and abilities,” says Gabrielle, “it’s a huge life skill to be able to get on with everybody.”
As we bid farewell to this utopian vision of futuristic learning, with a pang of nostalgia and just a touch of jealousy, the two dancing pupils feel symbolic of the blurred lines between education and play we saw on display throughout the learning spaces. As we walk towards the long-wooded drive, Gabrielle explains the concept behind the tree themed vinyl’s that line the walls, depicting the core principles students are encouraged to use to think about themselves: “You start by being strong in yourself and learning who you are. When you can do that, like a tree, you start to reach out to other communities and from there, you grow upwards.”