Whereas primary schools and universities are delivering well-designed buildings, secondary schools have fallen behind and are now in need of urgent guidance

Roger Hawkins

Almost three years since Michael Gove announced that the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme was to be scrapped, the provision of new secondary schools in the UK remains in a state of flux.

Elsewhere in the education sector, it is a different story. Directors of university estates, for example, have cultivated well-managed campuses, combining sensitive refurbishments with innovative new build. Independent schools also continue to create high-quality environments, often engaging architects to carry out masterplans and building appraisals to inform the process. It seems that long-term strategic planning of secondary school building stock has fallen off the curriculum.

The government abandoned the ambitious plans of BSF, which sought to rebuild every secondary school in the country, because it proved too expensive. Some pundits suggested that this would prove an opportunity for careful consideration of existing school premises leading to a more analytical review of development options. However, this opportunity has not been taken and there is ever increasing pressure on contractors and their design teams to build even more cheaply. The major builders are reluctant to take on refurbishment and therefore tend to promote new build at every opportunity.

Sports facilities range from compliance with Olympic standards to an exercise mat locked in a cupboard

The few new secondary schools that are being delivered through the Priority School Building Programme (PSBP) have been grouped together in batches, attracting the larger contractors using standard design solutions. Some projects have been funded using capital grant and others through private finance, which has further complicated issues. Elsewhere, schools have been procured through local authorities using their restricted funding sources or sale of playing fields, while academies are seeking to attract funding directly from industry.

We have also seen the emergence of free schools. Keen for quick results to justify their political backing, these schools are being shoehorned into locations and available buildings, irrespective of local demand. Some of these structures are so unsuitable that architects have resigned commissions, feeling unable to put their name to these buildings.

The problem appears to be compounded by inconsistent specifications and space standards across the whole sector. Each of the programmes noted above have different agencies and alternative requirements, leaving the procurement strategy in chaos. Why is it that 50m2 is too small for a classroom in some schools, yet 30m2 is acceptable in others?

Extensive kitchen facilities are seen as essential according to some requirements but packed lunches are on the menu elsewhere. Sports facilities range from compliance with Olympic standards to an exercise mat locked in a cupboard. Acoustic and ventilation standards are either strictly adhered to or completely ignored. The response is to build cheaply with little concern for environmental and life-cycle costs, leaving a legacy of high energy bills which future generations of schools may struggle to pay.

Meanwhile, higher education and private school architects are carefully considering design options, reviewing the benefit of building retention, responding to context with carefully considered refurbishments, extensions and new buildings, which seek to make the most of their existing assets.

Secondary schools are also losing ground to their primary level counterparts, where well designed buildings are being delivered, spearheaded by interested parents and active governing bodies, combined with a domestic scale that is easy to comprehend. We are seeing carefully designed primary schools delivered with an average spend of £5m for a two-form entry school, incorporating less risk and less government control over the purse strings.

Given that the current bulge in primary school demand will pass onto secondary schools in five years’ time, now is the time for specifications and standards to be streamlined and reinforced to provide clear guidance without constraining creative design solutions.

Roger Hawkins is partner in architect Hawkins Brown