A child’s early years are a crucial time in their development and working parents who have to entrust their precious little ones to others want to know that they’re getting the very best possible care. Of course, the love and attention of those looking after them is the most important aspect, but their physical environment matters too.
According to influential educator Professor Malaguzzi, a child’s surroundings are “a sort of aquarium that mirrors the ideas, values, attitudes, and cultures of the people who live within it.” We visited The British School of Beijing, Sanlitun (BSB Sanlitun), to find out how their new Early Years campus mirrors their ideas and values.
“When I first arrived three years ago,” David Laird, the school’s Principal, said “I walked into the Early Years building around the corner and it has a real cozy feel. Parents appreciate that, young children feel that welcoming environment. We had a BSO (British Schools Overseas) inspection that year, and our Early Years provision was graded outstanding in teaching and learning.”
“However, the Early Years building, cozy as it was, was becoming dated and tired. We’re a premium school and our parents, children, and community deserve really good facilities. We just felt it needed a good revamp and update,” Laird explained.
“On top of that, we’re a popular school. We’re pretty much full, and space is at a premium being a city center school. We already have a waiting list; we knew we would have to do something, or we would be turning people away. Once we knew that Volkswagen were moving out of that site, its proximity to here made perfect sense. This space creates opportunities.”
But the school is not expanding for the sake of it, he said.
“It’s about accommodating organic growth, sustained over a number of years. We currently have about 530 students, by next year we expect to have 570 to 580. The new campus also offers learning spaces for the school’s Primary students.
“We wanted to maximize the opportunities offered by our collaborations with MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] and Juilliard, as well as our STEAM program [Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math],” Laird said. “We felt it was key we had an arts studio, a dance studio, a maker space, and a cooking lab. The new media lab is a combination of a green screen room, where the children can film movies, and an editing suite with Macs and software packages they can use. There’s a drama element to it too, with a dressing room where the children can dress up and perform. The new building takes our collaborations to the next level, with bespoke facilities for particular functions.”
But the school is not just investing in a building, Laird told us.
“We’re investing in training staff in how they use the spaces. It’s all well and good having shiny new facilities, but you have to train people to get the best out of them. Sometimes when I’ve worked in very big schools with great facilities, they stay empty. Our focus is to maximize use of the facilities.”
The new educational opportunities are appealing to teachers as well as parents and children.
“We’ve been very lucky as a school in that we’ve recruited great teachers,” Laird said. “The benefits from the teaching side are an aid to helping us attract quality new teachers to the school. It’s a very competitive market, and when we’re talking to teachers we want to employ, it’s a differentiator.”
The response from parents has been extremely positive, Laird said.
“The families of Early Years children are very excited that they’re moving nearer the main campus, Primary families are happy they’re getting amazing facilities. It’s a win-win.
“When we prepared the launch presentation we asked ourselves ‘If I was a parent, what questions would I be asking?’ Obviously, pollution is an issue, so we designed the building with that in mind. We commit to keeping PM2.5 to single digits in the building itself. We’ve achieved it on the main campus, so we’re applying that expertise and learning to the new building. We have over 100 air purification units!
“When it comes to materials, we’re advertising to parents what paints we’re using. So it’s not just us saying ‘they’re safe’, parents can check for peace of mind. With the building being finished at the end of June we can air the building properly, so there are no solvent smells.”
We put on our hard hats and walked the site, with Laird and Admissions and Marketing Manager Majella O’Doherty, and we could already see the aesthetics of the building emerging, its flowing lines and open spaces.
“It’s all designed for the type of learning we’re pushing,” Laird explained. “We can separate classrooms with concertina doors, which form magnetic and writable walls, or open up all the rooms on the same floor. The library is a friendly, open space, to encourage a love of reading. We’re bringing the whole school together but retaining a separation. So, our primary children will have specialist facilities on our beautiful mezzanine level that has a glass wall so the children will be able to see each other.”
The building is scheduled for completion in June and will open in August.
“Our vision is to be the first school of choice for any parent moving to the Beijing area,” Laird said. “People want the best of the best. We’re fortunate that we can offer it to them.”
This article appeared on p38-39 of beijingkids May 2018 issue
Photos: Courtesy of BSB, Sanlitun