Michael Gove’s free schools were meant to rip through red tape. But it’s not just the curriculum that has been relaxed - increasingly, sustainability and space requirements are being dropped too. Now fears are growing that this latest austerity measure could spread to all new schools, as Allister Hayman reports

It could have been a match made in heaven: a group of parents had come together in Reading, Berkshire with a bid to David Cameron’s “greenest government ever” for a free school that would be a beacon of sustainability. Yet this proposed marriage between education secretary Michael Gove’s flagship free school agenda and the modern Conservatives’ green ambitions, never got beyond first base. The school will be built - construction began last month - but the sustainable vision has been quashed and it will instead be built to the most basic standards. Amid wider concern about the Department for Education’s commitment to green schools - and growing doubts over the government’s self-professed environmental credentials - the story of All Saints free school has implications for the wider industry and the future of school building as a whole.

A model green school

All Saints junior school in Reading - one of the first wave of 24 free schools - opened in in temporary accommodation last September ahead of the construction of the £2.03m permanent school: a refurbished council property and a new-build extension. The free school was the culmination of a long process of negotiation between Reading council and the All Saints Action Group (ASAG), a group of parents of children at the local infant school who had long wanted a junior school for their children to move on to rather than have them dispersed to schools elsewhere. ASAG drew up the proposal with support from the education charity CfBT Education Trust, and Sensible Schools, a joint venture between Trunk Low Energy Building Consultancy, architect 5th Studio and energy consultant the Warm Partnership.

The original bid for the school, seen by Building, said the school would have “exemplary environmental credentials” with “low running costs, high levels of comfort and a deeply embedded sustainability ethos”. It said that, in partnership with Sensible Schools, best practice sustainability practices would be modelled “throughout the school”. “All Saints will incorporate sustainability principles at its core, and will allow these to enhance the learning experience and have a positive impact on the local area and beyond,” it said. This was reiterated in the publicity material for the school, produced by CfBT, which said it would aim to “set the standards for sustainability”.

But this ambition did not make it past the initial bid stage. Rebecca Loftus, a parent, says ASAG was told that the group’s vision for a sustainable school would cost too much. “There was a lot of wrangling between the parent group and [delivery agency] Partnership for Schools (PfS) - cuts were being made to the amount of money we had and eyebrows were raised that, given the current austerity, we would want to have a green school. In the end we had to choose between no school and a non-green school, so we went for the non-green school.”

As a consequence, CfBT and the parent group will get their school - the construction project that began in January will realise four classrooms for 120 pupils, with a hall, a library, a food preparation area, a staffroom and offices. But the original vision for an exemplar green school, based on zero-carbon and Passivhaus design principles, was gone.

When we were looking at sustainability and where it fitted in the agenda – it was in there. It was not at the top, because we wanted a school. That’s at the top

Chris Austin, CfBT

A senior figure close to PfS, familiar with the All Saints application, said the bid was “one of the best organised and put together” of the first-wave free schools, but the “sustainable element was never going to happen”.

“It simply wasn’t a priority - green is not a priority for the Department for Education (DfE). That’s the reality. They have very little interest in sustainability and certainly not if it costs more than another route. It’s all about the cheapest possible capital outlay.”

The source says this “relentless focus” on the short-term capital costs, which “permeates all their thinking”, also demonstrates “a failure to appreciate that good design and sustainable development saves you money in the long run”.

“The notion of whole-life cost has been lost - and that’s bad for the industry and the environment - and the economy, if you read the Stern report [on the economics of climate change],” the source says.

The DfE does not dispute that cost is king - asked to respond, a spokeswoman said: “Given the current financial situation we look to establish every free school with the lowest possible capital outlay, while still meeting obligations under school and building regulations”.

Special dispensation

But Mike Jacob, from Trunk Low Energy, who led the Sensible Schools proposal for the free school, argues that in this case the cost of the green school proposal - far from being more expensive - was broadly similar to the scheme that is now being built. He points to costings drawn up by consultant Cyril Sweett for a series of options for the Sensible Schools proposal, with the nearest comparable scheme to that under construction costed at £1,807/m2 - just 5% more than the £1,720/m2 that the actual scheme is costing (see box, below).

But Jacob notes that the Sensible Schools scheme was designed to the Building Bulletins (BB 98 and 99) that set out the space standard for schools, adding various constraints that drive up costs. “We were later told that special dispensation would be made for free schools in that they wouldn’t have to design to the Building Bulletins, which would have had a significant impact on driving down costs,” he says.

News analysis

Work is under way on All Saints’ new premises – but without the ‘deeply embedded sustainability ethos’

“So it’s astounding that PfS have spent a similar amount to the Sensible Schools proposal, which was designed to BB98 and would have given them a building with negligible running costs.

“I don’t want to denigrate what the parents have done - that’s not what this is about. It’s about the policy direction from central government. How industry standards and ambition are being sacrificed in the name of short-term capital costs.”

Chris Austin, CfBT head of property services, denies that PfS ruled out the sustainability elements of the school and downplays that aspect of the early plan, despite it forming a key part of the application and publicity. “When we were looking at the importance of sustainability and where it fitted in the agenda - it was in there. It was not at the top, because we wanted a school. That’s at the top. But it’s in there,” he says.

Austin says the BREEAM pre-assessment for the school, conducted by the design-and-build team, rated it “very good”. But pre-assessments are only an early indication and Austin concedes the school will not be certified with an official “very good” rating, as is usually required by the DfE as a condition of capital funding. Austin says this is due to the cost of certification, which is “not the best use of our money”.

He says there was no pressure to build the school to BREEAM standards and confirmed CfBT were allowed to relax the minimum space standards for schools, set out in the Building Bulletins, by about 10%, meaning the school will be smaller than would usually be the case for the amount of pupils.

PfS also pressured the council to exempt the school from paying £27,729 in Section 106 contributions - something the council steadfastly refused to countenance, with councillors saying it would “drive a coach and horses through present policy”, creating a precedent that could apply to other schools.

Austin says PfS and DfE were focused on lightening the burden of regulation as much as possible. “PfS said, ‘As long as you meet Building Regulations, as long as you meet the health and safety requirements, as long as you meet your safeguarding requirements for the school, we’re happy - there is no set level that you must meet [in terms of standards] except for planning permission.”

He adds that the most important thing was the parents would have a school to send their children to: “It’s the school that mattered. The education that takes place in that environment - in the school - is the most important thing for us.”

‘Erosion of best practice’

This downgrading of the importance of the school environment runs directly from Gove and his advisers and has wider implications for school building and the construction industry. What the industry fears is that the relaxation of standards for free schools - such as the exemption for BREEAM “very good” certification and the reduction in space standards, by as much as 15% from the average - will be applied to all schools, including those to be built through the £2bn PFI priority schools building programme.

Mark Robinson, chief executive of Scape, a local authority-backed building procurement body, says Gove’s free school agenda is paving the way for a wider diminution of standards that will “set the industry back years”. “The whole premise behind a free school is that it can be provided in any building and set out in any way without restriction. So by scrapping BREEAM targets for schools, he’s solving the problem of free schools having to comply with certain standards.

“In our view, this is a slow, calculated erosion of best practice, which undermines the efforts of both industry and the public sector in striving to reduce school running costs while creating an improved learning environment.”

Robinson is not a lone voice. A series of letters from leading figures in the construction industry have lobbied Gove over the proposed move to scrap BREEAM, while ministries, including the business department, have also expressed concerns.

But they are coming up against a department determined in its belief that cutting “the burden of school building and premises regulations” - including BREEAM and space standards - is necessary to reduce red tape. “But also because we believe that high quality teaching is not dependent on expensive, custom-designed school buildings,” the department says.

It is a view espoused by Rachael Wolf, director of New Schools Network, the charity charged by the government with delivering the free schools programme. Speaking to Building last year, Wolf said there has been too much emphasis on the idea that a school building can “transform standards”, adding that this also applied to space standards.

“I don’t think the school environment is the most important thing, honestly, and I know that will be unpopular,” she said. “I just think that in a time of constrained resources, if you’re choosing between things, the quality of the teaching has to come first”.

But Nusrat Faizullah, chief executive of the British Council for School Environments (BCSE), says there is a “wealth of evidence” to show that environment plays a key role in raising standards in schools and that high-density learning spaces have a “negative impact”. The BCSE is now working towards the creation of a Decent Schools Standard that will provide guidelines for best practice in education buildings.

Faizullah says sustainability will be a key part of that, for educational, economic and environmental reasons. “Sustainability is incredibly important. We do recognise that there are some concerns with BREEAM, but we must be very careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater,” she says.

“If there is going to be increasing diversity of school providers in the future, then it is essential a blueprint is developed to make sure we are creating optimum educational facilities, not just new ‘old’ schools.”

With the DfE yet to set out its intentions on the outstanding matters from the James Review of education, such as BREEAM and space standards, Simon Lucas, head of education at consultant EC Harris, says clarity is urgently needed - particularly for contractors hoping for work through the PFI priority schools programme, which was scheduled to be launched in April but now looks to be delayed until at least September. “If you are going to keep forcing down building costs, you are going to have to be extremely clever around things like BREEAM or you going to have to change the standards. But we don’t know yet know what the specification will be,” he says.

And with the DfE expecting private finance to back the schools programme, Lucas warns that a diminution of standards will not sit well with the market. “The private sector will be investing in the buildings, so they will want to know they are sustainable over the long-term - they’re going to want to know its an asset that will last.”
For the parents and kids who are just happy to be moving into All Saints junior school this autumn, little of this will matter. But there are bigger issues at stake in Gove’s free schools agenda, and little clarity as to how they will be resolved.

Does ‘green’ cost more?

Two proposals for All Saints free school, Reading:
1. Exemplar green school: £1,807/m2

  • Designed to Building Bulletins standards
  • Zero-carbon Passivhaus school with negligible running costs

2. Actual school: £1,720/m2

  • Building Bulletin space standards relaxed by around 10%
  • Not BREEAM certified

Consultant Cyril Sweett costed four different schemes designed by Sensible Schools for the free school, with results spread between £1,700/m2 and £2,100/m2. That compared with a Building Schools for the Future average, at the time, of £1,850/m2 and an average for academies of £2,240 /m2. “We discussed and shared these at the first site feasibility meeting with Partnership for Schools and it was considered to be a positive thing,” says Mike Jacob, who led on the Sensible Schools plans.

The costings differ little from the eventual cost of the free school. A funding formula produced by PfS’s technical adviser Turner & Townsend put the funding allocation at £2.2m, minus £500,300 for the purchase price of the property. This was then reduced by around 10% to £2.03m by ministers, with £1.3m, set aside for construction costs, equating to £1,720/m2. The nearest comparable scheme under the Sensible Schools proposal, was costed at £1,807/m2 - a 5% difference.