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Shotover Primary School - The latest school of thought on design

Posted By: Posted by: www.odt.co.nz - Monday 10th August 2015 on Mon, 10 August 2015

Since opening to years 1-4 pupils in February, the Wakatipu Basin's newest primary school has continued to grow - both in its roll and buildings.

Located in Queenstown's fastest developing residential subdivision, the school's ultramodern design and splashes of yellow, orange and green on its walls make it look like anything but a traditional New Zealand school.

Guy Williams asks its foundation principal, Ben Witheford, what it's all about.

Q Why does Shotover Primary look so different from other schools - inside and outside - and what is the thinking behind it?

A If you think about schooling for a moment, the physical spaces that make up schools have fundamentally not changed since the Industrial Revolution. However, what we know about learning, quality teaching and neuroscience has come along in leaps and bounds since then.

Therefore to me it just makes logical sense that we should redesign these physical spaces we call schools.

The layout of our learning habitats (classrooms), the lighting used, the furniture choices made have all been influenced by the research on quality learning and how the brain works.

While Shotover Primary School looks quite different to the schooling I experienced, and indeed what many of you reading this probably experienced, it seems to make sense to me that if we now know more about learning and the brain, we should put this into practice so our children get a better deal from this knowledge.

Q Construction at the school continues. What remains to be done, and what is the timeframe for completion?

A The master plan for Shotover Primary School has three stages, which will eventually cater for about 850 children. To date, almost all of stage 1 is complete. The last building is the hall, music space and design, art and technology suite, which is due for completion during term 1 of next year.

The remaining two stages will be commissioned as the roll grows. There are no set dates for their construction.

Q As a principal, what are the biggest challenges, and rewards, of starting a school from scratch?

A Being part of a brand new school is something most principals dream of having the opportunity to do.

Those opportunities don't come around too often in New Zealand, and even less so in the South Island. So one key reward is the opportunity to do it in a stunning location like Queenstown.

It is also a chance to dream about what education could be like. Because we have the chance to start from scratch, we get to influence the furniture choices, building design, curriculum structure and staffing decisions.

These are very exciting possibilities to explore but also very complex, because there is a lot of pieces of the puzzle to fit together. We have a strong desire to get it right and make the most of the opportunity we have been given.

Q Tell us a bit about yourself: where were you raised and what were you doing before you came to Queenstown?

A I was born in Christchurch and spent my childhood travelling around the country every five or so years, clocking up time in Timaru - twice - Christchurch, the Coromandel and Southland.

This was because my father moved around the country for his work as an educational psychologist with the then Department of Education.

We then moved to Southland in the early 1990s, where I was until last year when I moved to Queenstown. Prior to being principal at Shotover Primary School, I was principal of Otautau School in rural Western Southland. It is a school of about 160 children serving the township of Otautau and surrounding farms. I was there for eight years.

Q Your school is in a residential subdivision that is less than three years old. What is the school's role in such a new community?

A Essentially our role is to be part of the community, to participate in the community. This is in two parts. First, we are making our resources and facilities available to the community we serve. Second, we are using our surroundings to enhance the learning opportunities for our children.

We are still working through exactly what that looks like for us, but our hall facility will be available for the community once completed, and our grounds will be available for use after hours.

In the coming years, we will be involved in some of the development within Shotover Country, for example assisting with the rehabilitation of the wetland.

It has already been fascinating and amazing for us to observe the community literally growing around us, which gives our children a chance to become part of something quite unique.