Consultants defend controversial school design

The consultants behind the controversial layout of Grand Cayman’s Clifton Hunter High School have defended the futuristic design of the $110 million facility.

An inspection report criticized the “open plan” layout of the school, saying it was creating noise pollution and limiting teaching styles.

Now, two consultants who worked on the design say it was effectively set up to fail.

Stephen Heppell, one of the key proponents of the new school design, said the original design was supposed to be accompanied by a fundamental shift in teaching style. He said political changes meant teachers did not get the support and training they needed to use the space effectively.

He took issue with the term “open plan” and said similar school designs featuring “modern agile spaces” in place of traditional classrooms had been extremely effective elsewhere.

“By not using the Clifton Hunter school buildings to their potential, children have inevitably not shown the kind of dramatic gains that should and would have occurred if the buildings had been used the way they were designed.”

Prakash Nair, president of Fielding Nair International, which was also involved in the design concept, said the building’s design could only work “within the context of a comprehensive transformation of the entire educational system in the Cayman Islands.”

He added, “It is hardly surprising that the design as built failed to deliver as promised because the process was, for all intents and purposes, designed to fail.”

The original plan for both Clifton Hunter High School and the as-yet unfinished John Gray High School was for an open layout with no traditional classrooms and no dividing walls between learning spaces.

The concept changed when a new government took over in 2009 and sanctioned design changes, including the addition of acoustic partitions between learning spaces.

Mr. Nair said this approach hampered the project and left the school caught between two approaches. The result, he said, was “completely dysfunctional and fit neither for a 20th nor a 21st century educational model.”

Mr. Heppell said the term “open plan” was inappropriate for what he describes as “agile multifaceted spaces.”

He said a lot of “misleading nonsense” had been discussed about the layout. Similarly designed schools had been effective all over the world, he said.

“These spaces allow a proper diversity of teaching and learning strategies in a way that traditional ‘cells and bells’ classrooms cannot,” he said.

But he emphasized that a shift from “stand and deliver” teaching to a more modern approach is needed. With greater student engagement, he claimed, concerns over noise levels would fall away.

“Staff needed the correct support from people who know how these spaces work,” he said.

Mr. Heppell, who helped write a teaching guide for a similarly designed school in Perth, Australia, said lesson planning, collaborative teaching and longer timetable blocks were key to making effective use of the spaces.

He said the school came out of an ambition for world-class education in Cayman.

“That dream can still be achieved, but it won’t be achieved by retrenching the old methods that weren’t working before anyway.”

Support local journalism. Subscribe to the all-access pass for the Cayman Compass.

Subscribe now


  1. The Clifton Hunter School is a done deal…….. Many parts of the above report does not sound too good, however will we be having to spend millions again on quick fixes.
    What need to happen is that teachers, and students also should also, should be listened to on their comfort and un-comfort there.
    What’s most important is that every teacher and student is in a comfortable environment and that we are getting the best of teaching with students coming out on top in the 21 century.

  2. The question one must ask is if the consultants who "sold" this design emphasized restructuring of the curriculum and teaching? How easy for them to say, “It is hardly surprising that the design as built failed to deliver as promised because the process was, for all intents and purposes, designed to fail.” Were there any discussion regarding curriculum? Was there any discussion regarding retraining faculty? Do you have any idea how difficult it is to institute a curriculum change and how much additional time it takes to do so plus training? I am fascinated by so-called "21st century" educators who continue to "reinvent the wheel" Just look at how well "common-core" is working in the U.S.! One thing you cannot argue with is that Cayman spends a lot money on having impact studies done–just look how many were done over the past ten years regarding the dock proposal in GT. Did they not do the same regarding “agile multifaceted spaces" or in other words, put multiple classes of students into one giant room and see what happens? The consultants claim it’s 21st century teaching and instruction. I argue that it’s a throw-back to the 1900’s where year 1’s through year 11’s were housed together in the same school house.

  3. I wonder if the consultant ever seen or been in a school or class room sense the 1960’s,or was he looking for a other consultant fee to change the education system , to say that a open school can work. That could be believed by some politicians, but I think most people would disagree.

  4. The open classroom as a physical concept remains controversial and has not received the type of acceptance globally that would have made its adoption an easy sell here in Cayman even had teachers been involved in the decision-making — which, par for the course, I would guess they were not.

    From reviewing the latest research, leading educators really recommend a combination of the open concept OF TEACHING and the traditional style of teaching. So the emphasis is on approach to teaching and not on the physical classroom structure.

    As to the view that this physically open classroom design is widely accepted, here is a quote from Wikipedia: "If poorly planned or laid out, open classrooms can sometimes lead to problems with noise and poor ventilation. Classrooms that are physically open are increasingly rare, as many schools that were built ”without walls” have long since put up permanent partitions of varying heights."

    Those few school systems that do have the physically open classroom structure such as we have at Clifton Hunter have built in a whole host of support systems for the classroom teacher, including adult/parent group leaders, individualized teaching materials, AND NECESSARY TRAINING FOR TEACHERS COMMITTED TO THE METHOD.

    Nevertheless, the open classroom TECHNIQUE of teaching must remain a respected part of the teaching methodology, as Wikipedia continues: "However, in many places, the open philosophy as an instructional technique continues. [1]Larry Cuban (Stanford University’s professor emeritus of education) states: "To call it a fad would miss the deeper meaning of "open classrooms…."

    There you have it — grasping at the surface meaning — the physical design of the classroom — is definitely not where to begin, as we did. We might have been better served spending many years in implementing the teaching style as part of the overall approach, and then to consider how the classroom design needed to be adapted and remodeled. We put the cart before the horse!

    Here is how Professor Cuban puts it in a piece in online journal EducationNext:

    "Since children differ in their motivations, interests, and backgrounds, and learn at different speeds in different subjects, there will never be a victory for either traditional or progressive teaching and learning. The fact is that no single best way for teachers to teach and children to learn can fit all situations. Both traditional and progressive ways of teaching and learning need to be part of a school’s approach to children. Smart teachers and principals have certainly constructed hybrid classrooms and schools that reflect the diversities of children. Alas, that lesson remains to be learned by the policymakers, educators, and parents of each generation."

    Well, we certainly are in good company!

  5. Mr. Nair thinks "Timetable Blocks and Collaborative Teaching" will shut us down from our 20th century learning state. What kind of FEE is paid for this BS. The real cost is how much to fix this mess. His statement "Old methods that weren’t working before" is BS.