Does Your School Work for You?

OECD School User Survey

Five years ago the OECD started work on a set of survey instruments to help evaluate school buildings. The result is the OECD School User Survey which aims to give voice to students, teachers and schools on how their buildings work for them. 

In an OECD context it is an unusual survey because it is at school level rather than at national level which so many of the OECD surveys are.

In developing the OECD School User Survey we saw it as being complementary to other surveys which gather performance data from school buildings such as on acoustics, lighting, air quality and temperature; and student performance data collected in various ways. Therefore this survey has been designed to be used alongside these existing approaches rather than provide yet another version of them.

While the survey covers perceptions around factors such as comfort, it also looks at how the space is used and supports a range of different pedagogical approaches. For example, it asks how often teachers use particular types of spatial layout such as for group work, presentations and so on, and crucially it asks how often they would do so if it were possible in their school. I say crucially, because this isn’t so often asked. The survey does not delve deeply into pedagogical practice as such, but the findings would reveal insights into how teaching and to some extent learning takes place in a school.

The survey also addresses safety and use of technology. When we ran a pilot test in some schools in Norway we could see the value of the approach. This was across six schools, so it was by no means a sample that represents a country, and nor was it intended to be. One of the interesting results across those six schools was that girls felt less safe than boys. Would this be repeated across a larger sample? Maybe, then again maybe not. However, it then offers an opportunity to explore this question more deeply in particular schools. Another finding was that students felt more positive about their school environments than teachers. As one former colleague once said to me, students seem to often see the pot as being half full whereas teachers see it as half empty. It also revealed that teachers in those particular schools rarely changed the layout in the spaces (classrooms) they used preferring presentation style arrangements and to some extent group style layouts. The question is whether those schools want to develop different approaches to teaching and learning.

What could you do with it? Well you could take the ‘temperature’ of your school and find out just what students and teachers think. Or, if you had a group of schools under your control you could run it across all the schools. If you wanted to link the findings to student outcomes then you could run it alongside one that gathers data on the specific outcomes you are interested in, and likewise alongside building performance data.

Recently the Inter-American Development Bank has used an early version on some schools in South America – we eagerly await the results next year. Already it has been translated into Spanish, Korean and I understand Japanese.

The survey doesn’t offer answers to all the possible questions but rather help find the right questions to ask. With so much focus on changing pedagogies and equipping students with skills for the 21stcentury this survey is something that schools can run themselves or with the help of experts to then work out what they can do to change their environment to better meet their needs. Yes it can be used before a school building or renovation project, and yes it can be used once such a project is completed to see whether the result expected has been achieved. Its real power lies in offering those who use these buildings and spaces the power to make their own decisions for continuous improvement.

Further information on this aspect of OECD work can be found at the OECD Effective Learning Environments webpage.


While I was involved both when I worked inside the OECD and outside as an external consultant, much recognition should go to others on the team at the OECD: Julie Velissaratou, Hannah von Ahlefeld, Joanne Caddy and Ria Sandilands.

The technical experts who assisted included Julia Atkin, education expert; Giusy Cannella and Leonardo Torsi from INDIRE, Italy;  Jill Blackmore, Deakin University.