A skint government needs to find new ways of meeting demand for school places. So it should ease up on regulation and allow the industry’s creativity to come to the rescue, says Peter Buchan

Chancellor George Osborne has said that £15.8bn will be invested in school capital over the spending review period up to the end of 2014-15. This represents a reduction of 60% from previously planned levels of spending. The cut comes despite a clearly urgent need to repair our neglected building stock - the focus of the much discussed, eagerly anticipated and significantly delayed Priority Schools Programme. Even more pressing, though, is our need to find places for the expected wave of primary school pupils entering education over the next few years. According to Department for Education figures, the total will be 259,000 between 2010 and 2014.

Something odd is going on in UK education. On the one hand, it is being opened up to anyone who wants to set up a school. On the other, more and more prescriptive rules are being introduced

There is, of course, “slack” in the system, which will accommodate some of the new entrants, and not all will be reception level starters. Nevertheless, our analysis points to the need for the equivalent of 300 one form entry schools every year for the next four years. That’s a lot of stock to provide over an extremely short period.

The situation is made more complicated by the fact that some places may be short term since the immediate increase represents something of a bubble rather than sustained growth. All this with no money left in the coffers. When was there ever a greater need for innovation and creative thinking? In other words, design!

In the UK we have architects and designers who are respected worldwide. The government needs solutions, or rather our society needs solutions. Let us respond creatively to solve this fundamental need.

Pop-up schools, innovative reuse of redundant space - the options are endless.

At Ryder Architecture, we’ve developed solutions both at home and further afield. Take, for example, the remote island where a school was devastated by a hurricane; or the African community seeking to reinforce their children’s education and revive their rural economy. Perhaps these examples sound extreme, but are their needs any less pressing and fundamental than our own?   

Something odd is going on in UK education at the moment. It feels somewhat schizophrenic - on the one hand, in a brave experiment, education is being opened right up to anyone who wants to set up a school. On the other, more and more prescriptive rules are being introduced to standardise the product and control standards and, at the same time, drive down costs. The new providers of education services, many now with significant experience, aren’t consulted on the accommodation they need or engaged in discussions on affordability and value assessment.

Construction invests millions responding to the Priority Schools Programme against a background of muddle and confusion

The construction industry continues to invest millions of pounds in developing responses to the Priority Schools Programme against a background of muddle and confusion and a growing fear that it won’t materialise at all. The client doesn’t seem to know what it is asking for. Or, if it does, it is going about it the wrong way.

Is the plethora of prescriptive standards staying, going or being held onto as guidance just in case? In which case everyone holds onto them… just in case!

Why is Partnerships for Schools saying it wants industry responses and also saying it is preparing its own standard designs - which it can’t share? Should we be focusing on theoretical new-build solutions when much of the market is likely to be refurbishment, extension or reuse? It’s said that society gets the architecture it deserves. Perhaps in the case of education, society will get the society it deserves.

It is certainly true that clients get the architecture they deserve and it follows that a good client gets the right result: good architecture that works for them at the price they can afford.

So what makes a good client?

  • Know what you want to achieve
  • Pick the right team and trust them to deliver for you
  • Engage with the creative process
  • Expect a lot.

The results are always surprising and much more likely to solve the problem.

The government needs to let go of
over-regulation and overly prescriptive briefs and learn to be a good client. Allow us to respond creatively with varied solutions that will provide a wide range of decent and, dare I suggest, uplifting environments at an affordable cost, before it’s too late.

The industry can then provide the solutions we all, especially our children, deserve.

Peter Buchan is chief executive at Ryder Architecture