It’s good that Cabe is assessing designs for Building Schools for the Future, but the way it’s going about it leaves much to be desired

I am client adviser to the east London borough of Tower Hamlets, which is applying for funding from the third wave of Building Schools for the Future projects. One of these schools was put forward to undergo Cabe’s new assessment procedure for schools, which gave me the chance to see how it worked from close range. And I’m sorry to say that it seems to me and the council that the system is flawed in several areas.

Cabe is an important part of the BSF design process. Its comments are useful and provide direction to design teams and, in the case of Tower Hamlets, the issues raised in the school panel assessments gave us focus. However, Cabe gives views only on the material submitted, which makes the process limited and static, and we fail to see how this takes into account the design and educational brief. It is, therefore, out of context of the bigger picture.

The brief naturally informs the design process and is central to the evolution of the scheme. The process also involves continuous and meaningful consultation with pupils, staff, governors and the community. This records the clients and building users’ aspirations for their project, and often results in important decisions being taken. All of the ideals and aspirations that stem from the design process are enhanced by the brief and hindered only by existing constraints. It is here where the Cabe assessment process is flawed.

Tower Hamlets is dealing with schools where most of the buildings are to be retained and remodelled alongside smaller elements of new build. Therefore, construction and refurbishment works take place around an operating school and involve complicated decanting and phasing operations. These impose constraints, often affecting the form and massing.

In the latest assessment reports on the Bethnal Green Technology College project, the buildings were given mediocre scores that did not acknowledge the obvious issues and constraints, let alone take them into account. All other individual elements were “good” or “excellent”. The overall design quality rating of “not yet good enough”, based on Cabe’s assertion that “only proposals achieving an overall rating of ‘excellent’ or ‘good’ are regarded as acceptable” is a bit like getting 10 A*s and one B at GCSE and having your whole grade marked down to a B. Is that fair?

Cabe’s method is a bit like getting 10 A*s and one B at GCSE and having your whole grade marked down to B. Is that fair?

The current process adopted by Cabe is not sending out the right messages, it is not enabling the education and building industries to learn from elements of best practice – those solutions that scored an excellent rating – and it is not, therefore, appropriate.

Surely a more constructive method of evaluating the assessment criteria would be to allocate points, similar to the system utilised in BREEAM assessments or the design quality indicator (DQI) briefing and assessment tools. And while I’m on this subject, wouldn’t it make sense to give Cabe’s 10-point assessments some parity with the DQI criteria? This would recognise the achievement of high design quality in all areas where this is realistic and achievable, provide consensus views from a wider audience, balance areas that are obviously beyond the school and team’s control, and provide a fair assessment overall.

We welcome constructive criticism that can improve schools for the future, but bringing design ratings down to the lowest common denominator only buries pockets of excellence from which we can all learn. Councils and the industry as a whole need to help encourage a fairer system by freely providing their feedback and demanding a system that does not penalise entire projects for elements designed with valid reason. It is demoralising for the whole team and unproductive for BSF.

We have sent our comments to Cabe and have called for a friendlier and more inclusive system. Let’s hope it listens.