The Impact of School Infrastructure on Learning

Contributed by:
Jonathan James
The quality of education infrastructure, specifically its appropriate educational planning and design with a focus on child development, has been widely discussed in recent years. The Sustainable Development Goals1, which are defined by the United Nations and scope the development agenda for all countries in the world, requires countries to “build and upgrade education facilities that are child, disability, and gender-sensitive, and provide safe, non-violent, inclusive, and effective learning environments for all.”
1. The Impact of School
Infrastructure on Learning
A Synthesis of the Evidence
Peter Barrett, Alberto Treves,
Tigran Shmis, Diego Ambasz, and Maria Ustinova
The Impact of School
Infrastructure on Learning
A Synthesis of the Evidence
Peter Barrett, Alberto Treves,
Tigran Shmis, Diego Ambasz, and Maria Ustinova
4. © 2019 International Bank for Reconstruction and Development / The World Bank
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and Maria Ustinova. 2019. The Impact of School Infrastructure on Learning: A Synthesis of the Evidence.
International Development in Focus. Washington, DC: World Bank. doi:10.1596/978-1-4648-1378-8
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5. About the Authors   ix
Executive Summary  xi
CHAPTER 1: Introduction  1
Context  1
Methodology  2
References  3
CHAPTER 2: Access to Education Infrastructure   5
Introduction  5
Optimal size of schools   5
Class size and density   6
Learning spaces and educational technology   8
Implications for equity   9
Summary  10
Notes  11
References  11
CHAPTER 3: Safe and Healthy School Buildings   13
Introduction  13
Impact on pupils   13
Impact on teachers   14
Scale of the problem   15
Equity implications  15
The dynamics at play   16
Summary  17
References  18
CHAPTER 4: Baseline Conditions for Learning   21
Introduction  21
Evidence for the impact of particular factors on learning   22
Evidence of holistic impact of school spaces on learning   23
Summary  28
Notes  29
References  29
6. iv | The Impact of School Infrastructure on Learning
CHAPTER 5: Links between School Design and Pedagogy and
Community  33
Introduction  33
Pedagogy and space   33
Improving schools and increasing community wellbeing   36
Summary  38
Notes  39
References  39
CHAPTER 6: The Process of Effective Planning and
Implementation  41
The need for dialogue   41
The need for ambition   42
The need for inspiration   43
The need for a long-term, holistic perspective   43
Summary  44
Notes  45
References  45
CHAPTER 7: Summary and Conclusions   47
Summary  47
Implications for future practice   49
Implications for future research   50
Conclusions  51
Reference  51
3.1 OECD earthquake seismic safety recommendations   14
1.1 Learning environments for better educational outcomes   2
4.1 Contribution of each classroom measure   26
5.1 Learning interactions: Teacher, spaces, and pedagogy   35
4.1 Summary of literature reviews on the impact of school
buildings on learning   22
4.2 Classroom characteristics that increase pupils’ ability to learn   28
7. Governments and societies around the world strive to improve their education
systems and ensure that all children and youths have the opportunity to go to
school and acquire the knowledge and skills they need to lead healthy and pro-
ductive lives. Key inputs to the education system, such as curricula, teachers, and
education infrastructure, help to improve the quality of education.
The quality of education infrastructure, specifically its appropriate educa-
tional planning and design with a focus on child development, has been widely
discussed in recent years. The Sustainable Development Goals 1, which are
defined by the United Nations and scope the development agenda for all coun-
tries in the world, require countries to “build and upgrade education facilities
that are child, disability and gender sensitive, and provide safe, non-violent,
inclusive, and effective learning environments for all.” Many stakeholders
around the world are seeking evidence on how various learning settings may
positively or negatively affect child development. The Inter-American
Development Bank (IDB), Organisation for Economic Co-operation and
Development (OECD), United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural
Organization (UNESCO), Council of Europe Development Bank (CEB), and the
World Bank are doing analytical work to answer the question of how to design
schools that are efficient, inclusive, and conducive to learning. Moreover, the
World Bank and other international financial institutions have large and diverse
investment portfolios on school infrastructure in different parts of the world,
amounting to billions of United States dollars. Therefore, there is a need for more
evidence on the effectiveness of these educational infrastructure investments.
The potential benefits of improving the spaces where education is provided can
be sizeable, including energy savings, safer and healthier environments for chil-
dren, and better learning outcomes.
Recent studies have shown that students’ performance is enhanced in schools
with better physical learning environments. As this report will show, the empir-
ical argument for investing in learning environment is strong. Furthermore,
although causal evidence on this topic is scarce, there is a growing number of
non-experimental studies—many of them compiled here—that indicate that
investments in quality school infrastructure are strongly associated with
8. vi | The Impact of School Infrastructure on Learning
improved learning outcomes even after controlling for students’ socioeconomic
background and other relevant covariates. New technologies and emerging
­pedagogical practices have created new requirements for educational buildings.
As a result, new approaches to building learning environments must be devel-
oped that both create better spaces for children and increase the efficiency of
investments in educational infrastructure.
The planning of good learning spaces is a discipline that combines different
sciences and that requires the involvement of all users of these spaces—teachers,
parents, and children—in the decision-making process for infrastructure devel-
opment. Policymakers could do more to include these groups in the envisioning,
coordination, and planning of specific infrastructure projects.
The evidence base related to the impact of learning environments on aca-
demic outcomes is gradually growing across the world. Many studies are cur-
rently ongoing or are planned in various countries. We present this report as a
contribution to the international dialogue on learning environments and as an
input to the World Bank’s educational infrastructure projects. The report con-
sists of a thorough review of various studies of how physical school design affects
the health, safety, and learning processes of children. The report’s findings may
be a useful input into project preparation in different countries, and we hope
that it will stimulate greater collaboration on education topics among the vari-
ous expert teams within the World Bank Group. However, our most important
goal in initiating the preparation of this report was to identify the “unknowns” in
terms of maximizing the efficiency of learning environments and to provide a
foundation for a rigorous research program in this promising area.
1. See for
more information.
9. The principal authors of this report are Peter Barrett and Alberto Treves. The
report involved the conceptualization, review, and editing of the text carried
out by a team of World Bank staff that included Diego Ambasz, Senior
Education Specialist; Tigran Shmis, Senior Education Specialist; and Maria
Ustinova, Education Consultant. The report team expresses their particular
thanks to the peer reviewers of this report: Toby Linden, Practice Manager,
Education Global Practice, East Asia and Pacific Region; and Michael Trucano,
Senior Education and Technology Policy Specialist.
Guidance and support were provided by Cristian Aedo Inostroza, Practice
Manager, Education Global Practice, South Asia Region; and Harry Anthony
Patrinos, Practice Manager, Education Global Practice, Europe and Central Asia.
The most important role in the conceptual thinking behind this note and in
the idea to publish this paper was played by the clients and partners of the World
Bank in Argentina, Belarus, Peru, Romania, the Russian Federation, Serbia, and
Uruguay. The commitment to education and the interest in creating better
spaces for children demonstrated by our partners in these countries sparked
many ideas in the team and eventually led us to sharing this knowledge and
experience with other countries and the global community.
Special thanks to the editor Fiona Mackintosh for copyediting the report.
The document also benefitted from discussions with and guidance from
Mary Filardo, Executive Director, 21st Century School Fund.
Finally, special thanks to the World Bank Publishing Program.
11. About the Authors
Diego Ambasz is a Senior Education Specialist in the Education Global Practice
at the World Bank. He leads several education projects in Latin America and in
Europe and Central Asia. In addition, he contributes with technical assistance
for projects in other regions of the world. Prior to joining the World Bank in
2003, he held senior analytical and management positions in Argentina’s public
administration. His teaching experience in public policy included professor
positions at the Santa Fe Catholic University in Argentina, San Martin National
University in Peru, and Rosario National University in Argentina.
Ambasz is a PhD candidate in education at San Andres University in
Argentina. He received an MA in economics and public policy from Di Tella
University in Argentina. He has published several articles and papers on
­education and innovation policy. He is the coauthor of “Technology and
Competitiveness in the MERCOSUR: Thoughts on the Development of a
Pending Agenda.”
Peter Barrett is a past President of the United Nations-established International
Council for Research and Innovation in Building and Construction. He is
Emeritus Professor of management in property and construction at Salford
University in the United Kingdom and honorary Research Fellow in the
Department of Education at Oxford University. Barrett is an International
Advisor to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and
the U.S.-based Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture and the American
Institute of Architects.
More recently, Barrett has researched the theme of senses, brain, and spaces
with an interest in school design and achieving optimal learning spaces. His
findings have, for the first time, isolated the significant scale of the influence of
physical classroom design on variations in pupils’ learning.
He also provides strategic consultancy on optimizing the impact of school
buildings on learning for the Norwegian Education Directorate, the World
Bank in Romania, and for the Girls’ Day School Trust and the Haberdashers’
Aske’s Boys’ School in the United Kingdom, among others.
12. x | The Impact of School Infrastructure on Learning
Tigran Shmis, a Senior Education Specialist, holds an undergraduate degree in
computer science and economics education. He completed postgraduate study
in information and communications technology and holds a PhD in education
from the Russian Academy of Education. He later completed an MEd in educa-
tion and educational policy at the Moscow branch of the University of Manchester.
Shmis worked under educational projects in Belarus, Kazakhstan, Peru,
Romania, the Russian Federation, and Serbia. Among those projects are the
Yakutia Early Childhood Development (ECD) Project, Russian Education Aid
for Development, and the Belarus Education Modernization Project. He also
contributed technical assistance to the Safer Schools Development Project in
Peru. He delivered several cooperation programs to the OECD Centre for
Effective Learning Environments and the Early Childhood Education and Care
networks, and to United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural
Organization. Shmis leads work on innovative learning environments, ECD
quality initiatives, and capacity building of the Russian Federation in interna-
tional development aid in education.
Alberto Treves is a School-Building Specialist with more than 1,000 projects
completed in the Americas, Africa, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe. He spe-
cializes in the early steps of the process, having created master plans, written
design manuals and specifications, developed school designs, and advised gov-
ernments and private institutions on capital improvement projects. He holds a
master’s degree in architecture from the University of Buenos Aires, and a certif-
icate in educational facilities planning from the University of California, and he
is a member of the Council of Educational Facility Planners International.
Treves has worked in many countries, and current and recent clients include
the World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank, African Development Bank,
United States Agency for International Development, Millennium Challenge
Corporation, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization,
Centro Regional de Construcciones Escolares para América Latina and other pres-
tigious organizations.
Maria Ustinova is a Consultant at the World Bank office in Moscow, where she
supports technical assistance and lending projects in the fields of education and
social protection.
She also serves as an Associated Researcher at the Urban Health Games
Research Group, which is part of the Architecture Department at the Technical
University of Darmstadt, Germany. She contributes to research ­projects that
investigate how urban planning and design influence human health and
­wellbeing, particularly focusing on school learning environments.
Ustinova holds double master’s degrees in international cooperation and
urban development from Darmstadt University of Technology, Germany, and
University of Rome Tor Vergata, Italy.
13. Executive Summary
The aim of this report is to review current research studies on how school infra-
structure affects children’s learning outcomes and to identify key parameters
that can inform the design, implementation, and supervision of future
­educational infrastructure projects. At the same time, this document also aims to
identify areas where the evidence is currently less strong and where there is the
potential for the further exploratory work.
School infrastructure constitutes a large component of the World Bank’s edu-
cation investment projects. The Bank’s World Development Report 2018 titled
“Learning to Realize Education’s Promise” stresses the importance of making
schools work for all learners and focuses on the need to ensure the high quality
of education. The report emphasizes the need to guarantee the efficient use of
public resources in delivering the maximum benefits of education to all
To ensure that investments in school infrastructure achieve the maximum
positive impact on learning, this report suggests that a comprehensive set of
questions needs answers:
• Do all children actually have access to a place at school?
• Do the school buildings provide a safe and healthy environment?
• Are the existing learning spaces optimally designed for learning?
• Does the design of the school foster current pedagogy and community
• How can the school infrastructure be designed to evolve sustainably over the
longer term?
This report brings together the key findings from studies of international
practice as a first step towards finding optimal solutions to the issues raised by
these questions and maximizing the benefits of school infrastructure.
14. xii | The Impact of School Infrastructure on Learning
We found that providing access not only to school places but also to spaces that
are safe and healthy positively affects pupils’ academic outcomes.
Chapter 2 of this report describes the key conditions for maximizing effective
access to school places. This involves schools that are: locally distributed to
maintain reasonable travel to school distances; relatively small; with relatively
small classes and relatively low density of classroom occupancy; utilized for a
reasonable school day length; and with optimal scheduling within the spaces to
release capacity to maximize educational benefits.
In chapter 3, we present the evidence in support of schools that are soundly
built to withstand natural disasters, that provide basic services and opportuni-
ties for outside play, and have good indoor environmental quality. These factors
positively contribute to pupils actually attending and remaining healthy in
school and, in the case of teachers, staying in their profession. Very often school
buildings fall short in these respects, and when they do, the most disadvantaged
pupils are often those who suffer most.
Evidence presented in chapter 4 of this report shows that the physical character-
istics of learning spaces have a significant impact on educational progress. The
impact has been estimated to explain on the order of 16 percent of the variation
in pupils’ learning (Barrett et al. 2015a).
The review team found that the following all positively contribute to pupils’
progress in learning:
• Good “natural” conditions such as lighting, air quality, temperature control,
acoustics, and links to nature
• Age-appropriate learning spaces that offer flexible learning opportunities
that pupils can adapt and personalize
• Connections between learning spaces that are easy to navigate and that may
provide additional learning opportunities
• A level of ambient stimulation using color and visual complexity
• Schools that are designed from the inside out (classroom to school) so that
each space meets the needs of its inhabitants
• Designs that take into account local climatic and cultural conditions.
Drawing back from the detail in this area, it does make intuitive sense that to
learn in a good physical environment should not be uncomfortable, alienating,
chaotic, or boring. The evidence indicates that there is potential for many
­existing schools to be upgraded very economically and for new schools to be
designed in ways that facilitate the learning imperative.
In order to maximize the positive impacts of school infrastructure investments,
there is emerging evidence that the “fit” between the physical layout of a school
15. Executive Summary | xiii
and pedagogical practice is important. There are also persuasive arguments that
engaging a wide range of stakeholders can increase the value of the education
being delivered.
Chapter 5 of this report emphasizes that the physical layout of schools can
reflect the dynamic of pedagogical practice, either by creating new schools or by
adapting existing schools to make them more spatially flexible so that over the
long term they can support rather than impede the desired developments in
­pedagogical practice. This chapter also discusses the possible major benefits to
be gained by taking the local community into account when designing and plan-
ning school infrastructure, although the evidence for these gains is not well
developed as yet.
Chapter 6 emphasizes that the implementation of school infrastructure proj-
ects should ideally be based on an ongoing dialogue among multiple stakehold-
ers in order to reap the full benefits of these projects in terms of learning
outcomes. This dialogue should continue over the long term to encompass ongo-
ing changes in demography and pedagogy.
Having a better shared understanding of how the design of school infrastructure
affects educational outcomes is very useful for those doing education sector
work. The evidence presented in this report shows that a wider range of salient
factors can be addressed for the same amount of expenditure. This will make it
possible to develop better projects and to meet the specific needs of the children
and teachers in question, with positive impacts for educational outcomes. It will
increase the efficiency of the resources invested in school infrastructure projects
and will lead to more effective cooperation between the different specialists
involved in the development of school infrastructure.
The range of issues covered in this report is based on the best evidence available
at the time of the study. There is much to build on immediately, but further
research would be valuable in the following areas:
• In relation to spaces that are conducive to learning (see chapter 4), there is
strong evidence from studies in OECD countries about which factors are crit-
ical for achieving positive learning outcomes. However, further studies are
needed to explore what kinds of spaces are best for learning in different
­climates and cultures.
• Cross-cultural, comparative impact evaluation studies would be valuable to
explore the issue of the optimal provision of places through the choice of
school disposition and size.
• The evidence for the importance of safe and healthy schools to promote
learning is strong, but investigations are urgently needed into how to make
this happen effectively in the context of existing country-level regulations.
• Case studies are showing the importance of matching the chosen peda-
gogy to the space arrangement, but large-scale research will be needed to
­confirm this.
16. xiv | The Impact of School Infrastructure on Learning
• There are persuasive arguments in favor of the contention that involving the
whole range of stakeholders in all of the different stages of school planning
has a positive effect on outcomes, but comparative case studies are needed to
further explore this area.
• Technology has an important role to play in education, but the technologies
chosen need to be appropriate for each specific school pedagogical approach
and learning environment. Therefore, more research needs to be done to
align the use of technology with the needs of schools, including not only
learning spaces but also school planning and construction as well.
• There is also a need to generate evidence from infrastructure projects imple-
mented in different contexts: from low to upper middle-income countries as
well as from schools in different geographical locations, and with students
from different cultural backgrounds.
We hope that this report will support those working in educational facilities
by giving them a better understanding of the value of better school facilities in
improving educational quality and extending the reach of the education system.
We also see this work as a good start in the direction of further research on how
to increase investments in educational infrastructure in ways that will overcome
current challenges and reap all of the potential benefits, particularly those
related to learning.
Barrett, P., Y. Zhang, F. Davies, and L. Barrett. 2015a. Clever Classrooms: Summary Report of
the HEAD Project, University of Salford: Salford.
17. AQ air quality
BSF Building Schools for the Future
CSR Classroom Size Reduction
HEAD Holistic Evidence and Design
IDB Inter-American Development Bank
IEQ indoor environmental quality
NAEP National Assessment of Educational Progress
OCZ outside their comfort zone
OECD Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development
PPP public-private partnerships
SEN special educational needs
STAR Student Teacher Achievement Research
WDR World Development Report
19. 1 Introduction
The positive benefits associated with creating an educated population are
spelled out in the latest World Bank’s World Development Report (WDR)
entitled “Learning to Realize Education’s Promise” (World Bank 2018). The
report is built on the notion that education is a fundamental way to achieve
development and growth. Thus, it is essential to design educational infra-
structure in such a way as to maximize the accessibility and effectiveness of
the education being delivered. The WDR also emphasized that the potential
of education can only be realized if education policies are evidence-based
and well-targeted and if the whole system is designed to foster high-quality
The WDR stresses that the recent expansion of education does not guarantee
the immediate achievement of important learning outcomes so more attention
must be paid to measuring and improving the quality of learning. It also argues
for the importance of developing the skills of both pupils and teachers to enable
them to meet the demand for teachers in the future. This emphasis on future-­
orientated skills is in keeping with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation
and Development’s (OECD) learner-centered principles (Dumont, Istance, and
Benavides 2010).
This report shows the evidence presented in different studies on the relation-
ship between school infrastructure and academic outcomes.
In the first instance, several key questions need to be addressed:
• First, do all children actually have access to a place at school?
• Second, do the school buildings provide a safe and healthy environment?
• Third, are the learning spaces optimally designed for learning?
• Fourth, does the school’s design facilitate pedagogy and community
• Fifth, how can the school infrastructure be developed in a sustainable way?
20. 2 | The Impact of School Infrastructure on Learning
Policymakers and planners need to consider all five of these questions together
in searching for optimal design solutions for school infrastructure investments.
The following sections of the report will address each of these issues in turn and
then draw overall conclusions.
To prepare this report, the authors extensively reviewed 129 publications
devoted to the built environment of schools, education policy, and the learning
process, including academic articles, research reports, books, and monographs.
The narrative is organized in a format of a critical review, which provides an
opportunity to “take stock [and] provide a launch pad for a new phase” of learn-
ing environments research by drawing material from diverse sources and tradi-
tions (Grant and Booth 2009). This has been achieved by a thorough analysis and
synthesis of the information, leading to a set of propositions developed by the
authors. The main selection criteria for the literature was to choose sources that
derived knowledge from sound empirical evidence.
The findings were categorized and discussed according to the following
dimensions, presented in the figure 1.1:
• The accessibility of the school
• Safety and health
• Optimal spaces for learning
• Synergy with the pedagogy and community
• The effective implementation of the school project.
Figure 1.1 shows the structure of the analysis in this report. A set of aspira-
tions for schools (at the bottom of the diagram) generates a range of practical
imperatives (at the top) and the text between summarizes the salient issues to be
considered, for which the authors have identified evidence in the literature.
Each section of this review relates to one of these dimensions.
Learning environments for better educational outcomes
a l impera
ctic tiv
P ra Optim
al spaces for learning
Fit w
alth ith
d he • Naturalness •F
an ble
• Individualization •E it wi xt
fe sta • Appropriate stimulation • duc p
Sa ally
Co ati eda
mm ona go
tur t s un l im gy
ruc r-tigh nitie ity
• S ate ame link prove
s me
• asic e nt
• B ecur
•S Syn
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• D mbitio d
-bu ns for sch rgetic
• A spire rm /
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• In ng-te
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• N pply
21. Introduction | 3
The field of educational facilities infrastructure draws on many disciplines,
starting from architectural design and ergonomics and proceeding to education
policy and pedagogy. Therefore, it was necessary to form an interdisciplinary
review team. This team consisted of one school design practitioner with wide
international experience and one academic researcher who specialized in the
impact of school infrastructure on learning. This made the review process more
robust and provided routes to two different, but complementary “libraries” of
evidence built up over time. It also afforded the opportunity to explore and
­triangulate these perspectives around the emerging themes.
The following review is focused only on primary and secondary educational
institutions, mostly situated in the United States, the United Kingdom, and
Western European countries. As is implicit in this methodological approach, this
report is not intended as an endpoint but as a starting point for further action.
A key aspect of this is rooted in the fact that the great majority of the evidential
studies are from the developed world. Therefore, there is a need for further work
on exploring and testing the degree to which these essentially human-centric
findings will need to be adapted when applied elsewhere, particularly in the
developing world.
Dumont, H., D. Istance, and F. Benavides, eds. 2010. The Nature of Learning: Using Reseach to
Inspire Practice. Educational Research and Innovation. Paris: OECD Publishing.
Grant M. J., and A. Booth. 2009. “A Typology of Reviews: An Analysis of 14 Review Types and
Associated Methodologies.” Health Information and Libraries Journal 26: 91–108.
World Bank. 2018. World Development Report 2018: Learning to Realize Education’s Promise.
Washington, DC: World Bank. © World Bank. https://openknowledge.worldbank​.org​
/­handle/10986/28340 License: CC BY 3.0 IGO.
23. 2 Access to Education
School planners have always wrestled with the question of how to create a school
(or a school system with buildings in different locations) that will best facilitate the
educational process. Although not impossible, it requires a very clear vision of the
current situation, of the expectations of all stakeholders, and the best possible path
to meet these expectations. From the facilities point of view, it is always necessary
to have some common quantitative denominators or parameters that will allow
planners to detect any anomalies in the existing school or system and designers to
come up with solutions that meet both current and long-term needs. Some of the
most important parameters are school size and class size. These will be considered
first in this section, followed by options for using space and issues of equity.
For years in the USA the size of schools was mostly conditioned by an arguable
concept of economics that considered that the larger the school, the lower the cost
per student. An influential book written in 1959 by James Bryant Conant, (Conant
1959) President of Harvard University, called small high schools America’s num-
ber one education problem, and many very large high schools were built based on
the findings of that book. However, there is a lot of more recent evidence that small
schools yield better academic results. The landmark 2002 report “Dollars and
Sense: The Cost Effectiveness of Small Schools” (Bingler et al. 2002) examined
489 schools whose designs were submitted to design competitions between
1990 and 2001 and concluded that small schools can be built and operated cost-­
effectively according to a broad variety of measures.
The same study also mentioned that small schools are not effective solely by
virtue of being small but rather work best when they take advantage of being
small. The best small schools offer an environment where teachers, students,
and parents see themselves as part of a community and deal with issues of learn-
ing, diversity, governance, and building in a home-like learning place.
24. 6 | The Impact of School Infrastructure on Learning
The study found the most common drawbacks of larger schools were:
• Higher transportation costs
• Higher administrative overheads
• Lower graduation rates
• Higher absenteeism
• Higher rates of vandalism
• Lower teacher satisfaction.
In 2001, the evaluation (American Institutes for Research, SRI International
2005) of grants program provided to small schools in New York City that aimed
to prepare low-income, African-American, and Hispanic youths for higher edu-
cation and the workplace, found that students in these schools had more positive
attitudes than students in more conventional schools. They felt more supported
by their teachers, and they were more interested in their school work. They also
had a 60 percent higher attendance rate than average, and students reported that
they planned not only to graduate from high school but to apply to college at
higher rates than students in other schools. A subsequent comparative, longitu-
dinal study in 2010 (Bloom, Levy, and Unterman 2010) of these “small schools”
in New York found that their pupils made academic progress that was signifi-
cantly ahead of the students in the control group, who were typically in bigger
and older schools. This effect was found in the first year of high school but con-
tinued right through to senior year, yielding greatly increased graduation rates.
Leithwood and Jantzi’s (Leithwood and Jantzi 2009) major 2009 literature
review on the question of school size looked back over 45 years of research but
focused especially on the previous nine years’ output. They concluded that
smaller schools contribute positively to student outcomes, including higher stu-
dent achievement, better attendance, higher graduation rates, and greater
engagement in extracurricular activities. They also strongly suggested that these
effects are more powerful in relation to disadvantaged children. Their conclu-
sions regarding school size were that elementary schools should be limited to
500 pupils or, if serving a high proportion of disadvantaged pupils, then a maxi-
mum of 300 pupils. Their equivalent figures for secondary schools were 1,000
and 600 pupils. This impact on the socially disadvantaged, and especially for
children with learning difficulties, was confirmed in a 2015 longitudinal study of
schools in North Carolina (Gershenson and Langbein 2015), even though these
schools were generally within the above size limits.
School size has geospatial implications. In a given geographical area, provid-
ing smaller schools means that they must be more locally distributed throughout
the area according to the density of demand for places. To the extent that this
reduces the distance that pupils have to travel to school, there can be real bene-
fits to this approach. It has been found that extended travel times to get to school
can have a range of negative effects on pupils and families, including the wasted
time spent in transit and the reduced opportunity for pupils to take part in after-
school activities or for their parents to engage with the school themselves.1
In Finland, which, according to the Program for International Student
Assessment (PISA), has one of the highest education scores in the world,
schools on average have only 195 students, with only 19 in each classroom
25. Access to Education Infrastructure | 7
(Finnish National Board of Education 2016). The Ministry of Education’s
(Finnish Ministry of Education 2012) current thinking is that the potential of
each student should be maximized by providing students with strong educa-
tion guidance and by teaching them in small groups. This policy fosters a closer
relationship between teacher and students, students and students, and between
the community and the school and strengthens the commitment to education
from all stakeholders.
There is strong evidence from around the world about the benefits of smaller
classes, including better academic results (Blackmore et al. 2011; Brühwiler and
Blatchford 2011).
The Tennessee STAR (Student Teacher Achievement Research) (Finn
Krueger 2001) was carried out between 1985 and 1989. In this study, random
students from kindergarten to third grade were placed in either small classes or
large classes. The students in smaller classes, consisting of 13–17 students, scored
0.015 to 0.020 or about 5 percent higher than the students in the larger classes on
standardized tests in both math and reading. This was particularly significant for
students from kindergarten to third grade, and those benefits were carried on
into higher grades.
Using a slightly different methodology, a study published by the Los Angeles
Unified School District (Fidler 2001) showed that, with other parameters being
equal, the longer a student is taught in smaller classes, the higher his or her
achievement in reading and language. In general, larger gains were observed in
mathematics, except for those students with limited English proficiency.
California’s Classroom Size Reduction (CSR) Initiative of 1990, a state-wide
effort to reduce classroom size, has been reviewed by many authors. In 2005, Faith
Unlu from Princeton University (Unlu 2005) produced a study using data from the
National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which contains compara-
ble test scores prior to the program and afterwards for California and other states.
Using a larger set of data, Unlu concluded that the CSR initiative had had a positive
and significant influence on the achievement scores of California students. In par-
ticular, most specifications suggest that, between 1996 and 2000, California 4th
graders’ NAEP test scores in mathematics increased by between 0.2 and 0.3 of a
standard deviation compared to the increase for closely matched students who
were not included in the CSR initiative.
It has been suggested that to gain the full benefits of reduced class sizes and to
change teaching practices towards more child-centered education, classes need to
consist of 15–20 students (down from the 30 that is typical in the UK), but this can
be quite costly (The Education Endowment Foundation Toolkit 2017).
Another related issue is the density of students in the classroom. Many
researchers agree that overcrowded conditions hinder students’ academic per-
formance. A 1995 study of data collected by the New York Board of Education
(Rivera-Batiz and Marti 1995) from 213 teachers and 599 students indicated that
both teachers and students had expressed negative sentiments towards school
overcrowding such as being overwhelmed, discouraged, and often disgusted.
Many considered it to be the most serious issue facing the schools. The study also
found that these sentiments were particularly strong in schools with a high pro-
portion of students from low socioeconomic backgrounds where overcrowding
was strongly linked with lower achievement.
Reinforcing this point, a study using an experimental methodology (Griffitt
and Veitch 1971) demonstrated that uncomfortable environmental conditions
such as high temperatures, high noise levels, and overcrowding can cause
26. 8 | The Impact of School Infrastructure on Learning
interpersonal disputes, hostility, and even violence, and this is also likely to be
the case in classrooms.
One limitation of these studies is the typical understanding of a school class-
room as fixed in space and a class as a defined number of students per one
teacher. Currently, many countries are moving towards making their learning
spaces and classes more flexible by piloting variable class sizes, team teaching,
and small group work among other variations. Introducing flexibility into learn-
ing spaces can make teaching more efficient and make better and more efficient
use of school facilities. There is a need for more research in this area, particularly
about the opportunities and risks that these developments create.
Various factors influence the number of seats that are effectively available in a
classroom, including technology and specific education programs, as well as
the building’s layout and constraints. Usually across the world students in
­kindergarten and the lower grades have a “home” classroom where they have
most of their activities. If they occasionally go elsewhere for music, art, or out-
side learning, they always return to their “home” classrooms. In higher grades,
the 9th grade and above, students often rotate between different subject class-
rooms, science laboratories, art workshops, library, and sport fields. In this case,
different groups of students will use classrooms on a fixed schedule just as they
use laboratories or music rooms. This rotation may make it possible for these
more specialist classrooms to be used more frequently and efficiently, which
could help to alleviate overcrowding situations in some schools. In many cases,
when space permits, the flexible arrangement of furniture and equipment within
spaces can also help students to acquire collaboration, teamwork, and other
interpersonal skills. This is certainly an aspect of the evidence on the impact of
“learning zones” (see “Evidence of Holistic Impact of School Spaces on Learning”
section in chapter 4). Thus, the quality of education can be enhanced by appro-
priate planning, design, and patterns of operation in schools.
In recent years with the increasing use of technology-based content in the
curriculum, students may spend more time out of the classroom. Educational IT
can allow them to learn at their own pace in purposely designed break-out2
spaces, outside learning areas, or even corridors, staircases, or cafeterias.
Flexibility and adaptability in the design of formal and informal learning spaces
may not only provide students with more diverse learning opportunities, stimuli,
and experiences but also the chance to develop non-cognitive skills. However,
this is not simply a matter of more technology or a belief that its use is good
per se. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)
(OECD 2015) carried out an international investigation into the impact of heavy
investments in technology in schools in 2015 and came up with mixed findings.
They found some evidence that moderate use of computers in the classroom
tended to assist learning outcomes but also discovered some negative effects of
heavy use of computers. One interpretation that the OECD gave was that “build-
ing deep, conceptual understanding and higher-order thinking requires inten-
sive teacher-student interaction, and technology sometimes distracts from this
valuable human engagement.” They stressed that the use of technology must
be fully aligned with the pedagogies being used in schools, and this itself is an
area on which there are many contested views (see “Pedagogy and Space”
27. Access to Education Infrastructure | 9
section in chapter 5). This also reinforces the argument, stated above, that the
school building has to be planned and designed primarily around educational
requirements in order for it to be effective as a “third teacher.”
This review is focused on the physical spaces and so will not pursue the topic
of technology further, but it can be said that, in some ways, technology now takes
up less space as there has been a shift in some countries from specialized com-
puter labs to isolated desktops in the classroom, to mobile laptop trolleys, and to
more freely available personal devices supported by wireless technology. As a
result, it is not as difficult as it used to be in practical terms to have free access to
computers (or phones), but it is very much a live issue as to whether it is always
While the number of “seats” in a school and how they are set out is of vital
importance, the quantity of education delivered is also affected by the length of
the school day. This varies widely from country to country. For example, in
Romania, it is quite common for children to attend school for only half the day as
part of a two-shift system (Barrett and Barrett 2016). In South Asia, despite
­figures indicating very positive increases in enrollment rates and gender parity
among students (as indicated by the UN statistics), academic outcomes are still
poor throughout the region (Asim et al. 2015). It would seem that a major reason
for this is the short length of the school day in some countries in the region such
as India where the school day typically lasts for only three hours compared to six
to eight hours per day on average in OECD countries (Banerjee and Duflo 2011).
In addition, there is evidence that starting the school day later, for adolescents
especially, can be beneficial as it fits with their natural cycle of alertness during
the day (Lockley 2015).
From a purely numeric outlook, classroom and school size are important
­elements of the facility planning process on the supply side. When compared
with demand, this will show a deficit or surplus of available places in a given
planning area. The difference between need and availability of places is the
basis on which to determine a plan of new school construction, expansion, or
renovation. There is robust evidence, for example in South Asia, that “school
building programs rank among the most effective educational interventions.”
(Asim et al. 2015; Petrosino et al. 2012)
According to the Center for Public Education, (Center for Public Education
2016) equity is achieved in education when all students receive the resources
that they need to graduate fully equipped to succeed after high school. Whether
the goal is high school graduation, university success, or just to finish elementary
school, policymakers aim to ensure an equal and fair distribution of the resources
that students need to achieve their goals, including adequate school facilities,
so that every member of each age group has the opportunity to attend school.
Equity is a universal goal with consequences for the building environment
and includes:
• All genders
• People with special educational needs and disabilities
• Urban, rural, and marginal area populations
• Populations in transition
• Working children and youths.
28. 10 | The Impact of School Infrastructure on Learning
For example, one of the basic principles of the education system in Finland is
that all people must have equal access to high quality education and training
(MacNeice and Bowen 2016). A similar mandate is found in the legislation of
pretty much every country, but these laws are rarely fully implemented mostly
because of budgetary constraints.
Achieving equity means that all schools should be safe from natural disasters
or any other outside concerns and should have all of the spaces, furniture, and
equipment needed to deliver the curriculum in an effective way. Conversely,
inequity means a lack of or insufficient bathroom facilities, inadequate separa-
tion between boys and girls, long or dangerous walking distances to school, or, as
also mentioned by Kathleen Cotton (Cotton 1996), the fact that many more poor
students and those of racial and ethnic minorities have to attend larger schools
than other students.
Another shameful form of inequity, is discrimination against students with
disabilities as manifested by a lack of ramps, inadequate bathroom facilities, poor
signage, and a lack of specialized teacher support. This kind of discrimination is
a relatively easy problem to solve with adequate facilities that meet current
design standards existing in most countries around the world.
Unequal distribution of educational resources creates frustration and resent-
ment and in many cases school dropouts and teacher absenteeism. On the other
hand, ensuring that schools have adequate facilities could play a definitive role
in improving equity, increasing enrollment rates, and fostering student reten-
tion. World Bank professionals (Schady and Paxson 1999) concluded in a 1999
study that, in Peru, building and renovating school facilities had a positive effect
on attendance rates.
There is evidence that the following all have a positive effect on pupils’ academic
• Small schools
• Schools locally distributed to maintain acceptable travel distances to school
• Small classes
• Low density of classroom occupancy3
• Optimal school day length
• Optimal scheduling of the use of spaces to maximize educational benefit.
Each country and, in some cases, each province or district has its own param-
eters that are used in planning. These usually include two key measures: capacity4
and utilization.5 Both of these measures are likely to vary between regular class-
rooms, laboratories, and physical education facilities and also by educational
level. This information is typically presented in codes or standards that are
applied to all government-sponsored school construction. All of the particular
elements described above should be discussed as part of a Facilities Master
Planning process to identify challenges and establish priorities for the allocation
of funds. As Mary Filardo (Filardo 2008) has advocated, this should be done
according to explicit criteria that have been developed with input from the pub-
lic. The aim of this planning process is to ensure that every member of a particular
age group has the opportunity to attend a school that meets their expectations.
29. Access to Education Infrastructure | 11
To conclude, there are many ways in which the design of educational facilities
can enhance educational outcomes. Once these ways have been identified and
taken into consideration in the planning and design process, this will provide a
sound basis for extending educational provision to all.
1. Private correspondence with Janssen Edelweiss Teixeira, Senior Education Specialist at
the World Bank in Washington, based on a recent study of educational infrastructure in
2. Break-out spaces are spaces in the school building that are not designed primarily for
classes and can be used by students to do individual work or small groups work (corners
with sofas, nooks in the walls, or specially designed and furnished corridor space).
3. For example, a minimum of two meters per pupil is the norm in Norway, but 1.83 meters
per pupil is typical in the UK.
4. Capacity is the number of seats available in a standard classroom multiplied by the number
of classrooms and by the number of shifts that the school operates.
5. Utilization reflects the number of class hours during which a specific room is used per
week divided by the number of hours a week that the room is used.
American Institutes for Research, SRI International. 2005.​
Asim, S., R. S. Chase, A. Dar, and A. Schmillen. 2015. “Improving Education Outcomes in South
Asia: Findings from a Decade of Impact Evaluations.” Policy Research Working Papers
73622015, The World Bank, Washington, DC.
Banerjee, A. V., and E. Duflo. 2011. E, “Why Aren’t Children Learning?” Development Outreach
(April): (13): 36–44.
Barrett, P., and L. Barrett. 2016. Report on the Assessment of the Potential Impact of the Physical
Condition of a Sample of Romanian Schools on Learning Outcomes. Romania: International
Bank for Reconstruction and Development/the World Bank.
Bingler, Steven, Barbara M. Diamond, Bobbie Hill, Jerry L. Hoffman, Craig B. Howley, Barbara
Kent Lawrence, Stacy Mitchell, David Rudolph, and Elliot Washor. 2002. Dollars and Sense:
The Cost Effectiveness of Small Schools, Concordia and KnowledgeWorks Foundation.
Blackmore, J., D. Bateman, J. Loughlin, J. O’Mara, and G. Aranda. 2011. Research into the
Connection between Built Learning Spaces and Student Outcomes. Melbourne: Education,
Policy and Research Division, Department of Education and early Childhood Development,
State of Victoria.
Bloom, H. S., S. Levy, and T. R. Unterman. 2010. Transforming the High School Experience: How
New York City’s New Small Schools Are Boosting Student Achievement and Graduation Rates.
New York: MDRC.
Brühwiler, C., and P. Blatchford. 2011. “Effects of Class Size and Adaptive Teaching
Competency on Classroom Processes and Academic Outcome.” Learning and Instruction
21 (1): 95–108.
Center for Public Education. 2016. Educational Equity: What Does it Mean? How Do We Know
When We Reach It?
Conant, James Bryant. 1959. The American High School Today. McGraw-Hill, New York.
Cotton, K. 1996. “School Size, School Climate, and Student Performance,” Northwest Regional
Educational Laboratory (NWREL). May 1996, Close-Up#20. https://educationnorthwest​
30. 12 | The Impact of School Infrastructure on Learning
Fidler, Penny. 2001. The Impact of Class Size Reduction on Student Achievement. Planning,
Assessment and Research Division Publication No. 109, Los Angeles Unified School District.
Filardo, M. 2008. Good Buildings, Better Schools: An Economic Stimulus Opportunity with Long-
term Benefits. Washington, D.C.: Economic Policy Institute. Briefing Paper #216.
Finn, Jeremy, and Alan Krueger. 2001. Class Size: Project STAR. American Youth Policy Forum.
Finnish Ministry of Education. 2012. Education in Finland. Helsinki.
Finnish National Board of Education. 2016. Compulsory Education in Finland. Helsinki.
Gershenson, S., and L. Langbein. 2015. “The Effect of Primary School Size on Academic
Achievement.” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 37 (1S): 135S–55S.
Griffitt, W. and R. Veitch. 1971. “Hot and Crowded: Influences of Population Density and
Temperature on Interpersonal Affective Behavior.” Journal of Personality and Social
Psychology. 1971 Jan; 17 (1): 92–8. Manhattan, KS: Kansas State University.
Leithwood, K., and D. Jantzi. 2009. “A Review of Empirical Evidence About School Size Effects:
A Policy Perspective.” Review of Educational Research 79 (1): 464–90.
Lockley, S. 2015. Interventions to Improve Sleep, Alertness and Learning in Schools in Research
Summit: Childhood Health and School Buildings. Washington, DC: US Green Building
Council, Dunbar Senior High School.
MacNeice, B. and J. Bowen 2016. Powerhouse: Insider Accounts into the World’s Top High-
performance Organizations. London: KoganPage.
OECD. 2015. Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection. Paris: OECD
Petrosino, A., C. Morgan, T. A. Fronius, E. E. Tanner-Smith, and R. F. Boruch. 2012.
“Interventions in Developing Nations for Improving Primary and Secondary School
Enrollment of Children: A Systematic Review.” Campbell Systematic Reviews 2012: 19.
Rivera-Batiz, F. L., and L. Marti. 1995. A School System at Risk: A Study of the Consequences of
Overcrowding in New York City Public Schools. New York: Columbia University.
Schady, N. and C. Paxson 1999. Do School Facilities Matter? The Case of the Peruvian Social Fund
(FONCODES). Washington, D.C.: World Bank.
The Education Endowment Foundation Toolkit. 2017. (accessed June 22, 2017), https:// built​
Unlu, Faith. 2005. California Class Size Reduction Reform: New Findings from the NAEP.
Princeton University.
31. 3 Safe and Healthy School
Threats to the safety of schools can come from both inside and outside the school
buildings. It is easy to imagine how distracting it would be for students, teachers,
and parents if, for example, the school’s structure may not withstand the next
earthquake, or if its electrical wiring is exposed, its window glass is broken, or its
bathrooms are a source of contamination instead of being sanitary. If school
buildings are prone to be flooded by intensive rains, swept away by high winds,
exposed to hazardous materials, or decaying for lack of maintenance, it hinders
both teaching and learning, making it harder to produce the level of academic
results that are possible in a safe and healthy building. This report centers on the
physical environment and, although there are grave safety issues related to the
safeguarding of pupils and staff from violent attack, this topic is beyond
the scope of this review. The focus here is on fundamental physical conditions
and does not extend to issues such as surveillance systems and security checks
related to portals of entry and access to the school site.
When Glen Earthman (Earthman 2004), an American educational administra-
tor and planner, was asked to name the most important elements related to
health and safety, he mentioned: potable water, fire safety, adequate lavatories,
security systems, and a good communication system to use in emergencies.
Research done in Latin America in 2011 (Duarte et al. 2011) showed that the lack
of basic services such as electricity, potable water, sanitary drains, telephone or
proper ways to dispose garbage and waste in schools is strongly associated with
violence, discrimination, and limited opportunities to learn. The study pointed
out that investments in school infrastructure and the physical conditions for
learning are not a luxury but a need. In 2014, The Organisation for Economic
Co-operation and Development (OECD) published a report highlighting seven
key ways to protect schools from earthquakes, which in 2017 became a moni-
tored framework (see box 3.1) (OECD 2017).
32. 14 | The Impact of School Infrastructure on Learning
BOX 3.1 Many building-related factors influence the well-
being of its occupants. Water and moisture can have a
OECD earthquake seismic safety major impact on public health. A worldwide study by
UNDP in 2006 found that children lose 443 million
school days each year because of water-related ill-
nesses (UNDP 2006), of which 272 million are lost due
1. Seismic safety policy
to diarrhea alone (Hutton and Haller 2004). More
2. Accountability
than 40 percent of diarrhea cases among schoolchil-
3. Building codes and enforcement
dren are the result of transmission in schools rather
4. Training and qualification
than in their homes.
5. Preparedness and planning
At a less extreme, but still very pervasive level, many
6. Community awareness and participation
researchers (US National Research Council 2006)
7. Risk reduction in new and existing schools
have identified poor air quality as a source of health
Source: OECD 2017. problems, with dampness causing the most absences
from school (by both pupils and teachers) (Issa et al.
2011; Kielb et al. 2015; Mendell and Heath 2005).
In closed environments, respiratory problems seem
to be the main cause of absenteeism. The US Environmental Protection Agency
has estimated that more than 10 million days of schooling are lost each year in
the US because of asthma attacks among students (U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency 2000). Additionally, a study sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control
in New York (Simons et al. 2010) found that moisture and dampness can cause
the growth of mold and the proliferation of dust mites, which can produce aller-
gic respiratory symptoms and foster infections. Poor ventilation enables partic-
ulates, pollutants, and allergens to accumulate inside school buildings, and
inadequate air circulation can increase the transmission of respiratory infec-
tions. For example, a study of 409 classrooms in Idaho and Washington in 2004
(Shendell et al. 2004) found that student absences jumped by 10–20 percent in
rooms with poor ventilation.
It is also important for students to spend time outside for recreation and
physical activity. Several authors (Duarte et al. 2011; Sharif 2014) have concurred
on the need for schools to provide recreational and physical education activities
to balance the more intellectual school work as play has a significant impact on
almost every aspect of children’s development. However, schools are not always
able to provide children with these opportunities. For example, in Latin American
countries, 35 percent of students have no designated space to play sports in their
schools, which is having serious negative consequences on learning outcomes in
the region.
In urban areas, where land is scarce and green areas are in short supply, ver-
tical gardens and “eco-trees” in courtyards could be developed to provide shade,
natural cooling, and pleasant views. These sorts of initiatives would give stu-
dents the chance to learn how to look after plants and seeing first-hand how they
grow, are harvested, and recycled. Botany, physics, chemistry, biology, and other
lessons could be held outside.
Teachers are not immune to health and safety concerns. Researchers (Chaudhury
et al. 2006) from several lending institutions and universities made unannounced
33. Safe and Healthy School Buildings | 15
visits to primary schools in Bangladesh, Ecuador, India, Indonesia, Peru, and
Uganda in 2006 and found that about 19 percent of teachers were absent. To try
to understand this phenomenon, they constructed an index measuring the qual-
ity of the school’s infrastructure that included whether the school had a toilet,
covered classrooms, non-dirt floors, electricity, or a school library. The analysis
for the sample as a whole suggested that: “moving from a school with the lowest
infrastructure index score to one with the highest (that is, from a score of zero to
five) is associated with a 10-percentage point reduction in teacher absence.” This
conclusion echoed the results of studies in 2004 and 2016 that found a strong
relationship between US and UK teachers’ perceptions respectively of the main-
tenance and condition of the buildings and their intentions to stay or leave the
profession. The state of the infrastructure was found to be a more significant fac-
tor than their salary levels (Buckley, Schneider, and Shang 2004; Thomas and
Pasquale 2016).
In the view of the American Federation of Teachers (American Federation of
Teachers 2008), conventional school construction often falls short of expecta-
tions, with teachers, staff and students often having to work in buildings with
leaking roofs, inadequate ventilation, and other problems. For two decades,
the American Federation of Teachers has been documenting the high cost of
deteriorating schools. Students, teachers, and staff pay the price for these
deplorable building conditions in the form of lower educational achievement,
lost income, and health problems. The breakdown of America’s education
infrastructure exacts a heavy toll not only on those who spend their days
inside school walls, but also on the environment in general. In the UK, a 2016
survey found that only 5 percent of 59,967 schools were “performing as
intended.” (Thomas and Pasquale 2016) The US and the UK are wealthy coun-
tries so it is not surprising that these school infrastructure and related prob-
lems are much worse in many other regions around the world (World Health
Organization 2015).
Glen Earthman’s 2004 study (Earthman 2004) highlighted an important factor
that needs to be considered when discussing the relationship between building
conditions and student achievement—inequity. Earthman found that most
older school buildings and those in poor condition are located in the poorest
areas in each school district in both urban and rural areas. Students from
poor areas, as a general rule, perform less well than students from more afflu-
ent areas. When low-income students attend school in a building that does not
meet even basic safety and health standards, never mind the factors that have
been proven to improve students’ academic performance, then they are doubly
disadvantaged. Also, the failure of education authorities to make improve-
ments to a demonstrably old and failing facility can give these students
the message that the system values them less than it does their counterparts in
more affluent areas.