School assets and student outcomes

This literature review was originally published 21 October 2015.

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There has been a slow but steady increase in research into the impact of the physical school environment on student learning outcomes. Research in this area draws from a variety of fields, including education, architecture, health and design, and examines both tangible and intangible elements of the school environment.

While there is evidence that the physical school environment can affect student learning outcomes, it is difficult to isolate from other influences. Research has shown teacher quality is the greatest in-school influence on student engagement and outcomes, with other factors such as students’ socio-economic status and language background also known to impact on outcomes. With this in mind, the built environment is only one of many factors that may affect student learning outcomes.

This paper reviews and summarises the literature on this topic. It begins by considering the available evidence for capital spending and investment in schools. The paper goes on to consider how physical elements of the school environment can affect student learning, and how both students and teachers respond to different learning spaces. It also identifies gaps in existing research, such as how ‘vertical’ schools and open plan classrooms affect student performance as well as the role educators and students can play in the design process.

Capital spending in schools

Investment in schooling has widespread and long-term benefits. Investment in education has positive public returns, such as improved employment outcomes, better health outcomes and greater social cohesion (Australian Government 2014; Institute for Social Science Research 2013). Education is also seen as a way to mitigate background disadvantage and encourage social and intergenerational mobility (Australian Government 2014; Institute for Social Science Research 2013).

The effect of building condition on student performance

The condition of a school environment is generally determined by examining a number of separate physical elements, including lighting, temperature and indoor air quality. Much of the research examines these elements in isolation and, as a result, recommendations regarding some elements conflict with recommendations regarding others (e.g. findings on heating and noise). While separating these elements can be useful, it is also important to consider them together to get a holistic understanding of the school environment.

A number of international studies have identified a link between building condition and student attainment (Barrett et al. 2015; Tanner 2009; Cash 1993). These studies have generally employed a similar approach; rating the overall condition of school buildings and then comparing this against standardised student test scores. A common finding across these studies is that inadequate environmental conditions, such as poor indoor air quality or excessive noise, have a detrimental impact. However, it remains unclear whether improving these elements beyond a reasonable standard has any additional benefits (The Design Council 2005; Woolner et al. 2007; Earthman 2004; Education Endowment Foundation, n.d.). Further, much of this research has been conducted overseas, in the United Kingdom and the United States, so findings may be influenced by the geographical and environmental characteristics of these countries.

Barrett et al. (2015), in a recent study in the United Kingdom (the HEAD project), found the physical characteristics of primary schools can affect students’ learning across reading, writing and mathematics. The researchers collected data on 153 classrooms from 27 primary schools, located across three local authority areas that represent a mix of socio-economic levels. They then separated the classroom environment into three categories: naturalness, including light and air quality; stimulation, such as colour; and individualisation, including the flexibility of the space. The classroom environment was then compared to anonymised performance data for 3,766 students from across the schools. The authors found differences in the physical characteristics of classrooms explained 16 per cent of the variation in learning progress over a year. Naturalness was found to account for about half of the effect, with stimulation and individualisation accounting for about a quarter each.

A study commissioned by the New Zealand Ministry of Education (New Zealand Ministry of Education 2004) aimed to gain an understanding of what key stakeholders consider to be elements of ‘good’ classroom and school design3. Although the sample size was relatively small, and therefore cannot be assumed to be representative, participants consistently identified four physical factors they felt affected student learning. These were: temperature control, proper lighting, adequate space and appropriate equipment and furnishings.

Although some studies have found a negative link between older facilities and student outcomes (National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities 2002; Earthman 2004), it is not clear whether this is due to the age of the building or its condition. As Tanner (2009) notes, even new school buildings may have structural problems such as inadequate natural light. Some have suggested that, if nothing else, new school buildings can improve student and teacher attitudes. In a desktop review, the Victorian Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (DEECD 2011) found newer school buildings can have a positive effect on student morale as well as the perception of the school in the local community.

A number of studies have identified improvements in student performance following the renovation of school buildings (Berry 2002; The Council of Educational Facility Planners International 1999). In a case study of a primary school in Washington D.C. Berry (2002) found student attendance, morale and attainment all improved after the school was renovated. The renovation involved replacing the carpet and upgrading heating, cooling and exhaust systems, while teaching staff, curriculum and technology were unchanged (Berry 2002). However, there does not appear to be any evidence to indicate whether the student performance improvements are ongoing or whether they subside in the years following a renovation.


Overall, the research suggests that basic physical elements of the school environment, notably lighting, noise, temperature and ventilation, can affect student learning. An ongoing question is whether, once these elements are at an adequate standard, further improvements positively affect student outcomes. There is little or mixed evidence for school size, open classrooms or vertical schools in terms of their impact on student outcomes.

An encouraging finding is that many of the basic elements of learning environments are quick and inexpensive to change. These include altering the layout of a classroom, providing a range of different sized furniture or changing the way students’ work is displayed. Yet the evidence also suggests it is important to consider how the physical elements of a classroom interact, particularly where changing one element may be detrimental to another.

A common conclusion in the existing literature is that changes to the school environment should be informed by the pedagogy, culture, practices and characteristics of the particular school. In line with this, an emerging theme in the literature is the benefits of including school users in the design process. However, while there is increasing anecdotal support for this approach, there is not yet empirical evidence as to whether this actually improves student learning outcomes, particularly long-term.

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