The Education Funding Agency’s baseline school designs have opened up divisions between architects and contractors when what is needed is greater collaboration

Steve Beechey

The recent announcement by the Education Funding Agency (EFA) on baseline school designs certainly provoked a strong reaction from some quarters. Following warnings that the EFA’s guidance on standardised designs for secondary and primary schools will herald a new era of “Tesco schools”, it’s essential to bear in mind that the goal of providing better schools for the country’s schoolchildren will be achieved as a result of an alliance between contractors and designers.

Public debate is healthy, but dismissing a standardised approach to school design as “flat-pack schools”, ignores the very real advantages that it offers. The EFA’s guidance provides useful information for all parties on how to adapt to the changing dynamics of the curriculum, as well as the ever-shifting needs of school capacity. It’s important to bear in mind that these plans do provide scope for innovation, while avoiding the problems that arose during the Building Schools for the Future programme - no doubt some of you will remember the “silver book”.

So, what can designers and contractors do to create the best possible school designs?

Both contractors and architects must use their experience and initiative to deliver the best in school design for Britain’s children. The industry cannot afford to be at loggerheads on this issue. What is needed is a partnership between contractors and designers, which delivers schools that respond to the changing design demands of the education sector.

The RIBA’s Angela Brady has observed that the EFA’s specifications are “far too restrictive with too much focus on short-term savings”. I would gently suggest that at a time when government austerity measures are high on everyone’s agenda, this argument really belongs to a different debate.

Criticising the ‘kit of parts’ approach just goes to show that some are taking a short-sighted view of the issue

Good design and cost efficiencies can be successfully married to one another. It simply isn’t the case that you have to choose one over the other - Campsmount Technology College’s success demonstrates the ability of a contractor/design team to combine an efficient use of the space available with impressive client satisfaction.

Claiming that the standardised school model is a cap on innovation is to misunderstand the new regime. Putting a flair for design at the forefront of the school building process serves as a fundamental part of any production process. Criticising the “kit of parts” approach just goes to show that some are taking a short-sighted view of this issue. Design teams the world over have demonstrated their ability to work in this way, on products ranging from the latest Audi models, right through to the best examples of school buildings in the UK. What’s to stop the same spirit from becoming an integral feature of the design process? Scope for excellent design continues to be provided under the baseline designs issued last week - now let’s help build the next generation of standardised schools into the next era.

In releasing specific guidance on both area and measurements of primary and secondary schools, and in providing more creative environments for learning and overall better facilities, the EFA has taken the initiative in laying down a marker for our industry. Some designers may be critical of what they perceive to be a contractor-focused marketplace - but collaboration with contractors remains key.

In the post-Olympic glow, you only have to look at Stratford’s Olympic park to realise that it’s exactly this kind of partnership that has produced some of the most groundbreaking projects in the modern era.

Communication, consultation and partnership need to be the watchwords of the school building process. A divided industry, with contractors on one side, designers on the other would be a nightmare, but it is an entirely avoidable one. Let’s negotiate the minefield and build a stronger relationship between both professions.

Stephen Beechey is group investment director and head of education at Wates