Just as we’ve finally started to build well-designed schools, the knives are out to cut back on quality. We have to resist those who threaten to wield them

As the US businessman Gary Hirshberg said, “Quality, quality, quality: never waver from it, even when you don’t see how you can afford to keep it up. When you compromise, you become a commodity and then you die.” That’s something we’d do well to remember in Britain in the next few years.

Take schools. When we started building them 10 years ago, we had to learn how to do it all over again. Cabe found that 52% of schools built between 2000 and 2005 were poor or mediocre. Nearly all failed to provide sufficient natural daylight and ventilation. We saw small dining rooms that forced children to eat in shifts, an expanse of tarmac instead of schools grounds, and dimly lit corridors so narrow they ended up being one-way.

Now we’re seeing Westminster academy make the Stirling prize shortlist. And Bristol Metropolitan College is on the shortlist for the prime minister’s Better Public Building Award. Meanwhile, 76% of schemes returning to Cabe’s schools design panel are improving, and we have a minimum design standard in Building Schools for the Future (BSF).

But just as we’re starting to do it well, the quality of school design is under threat. Knives are being sharpened for the public sector, and people are talking about cutting quality – even cutting out design altogether. We have to stand up to this. We can’t go back to the way things were before BSF.

Good school design is not just about staff morale, pupil learning time or civic identity. It’s about the fabric of our public services and the nature of our communities. The life chances of millions. And there are still plenty of young people going to school in buildings that would make you squirm. Schools that have not yet got any investment, and some that got investment but without any quality. What does it say about our country that we’re talking about leaving them this way?

Of course the landscape has changed and times are tight. But it can’t be right that our public services feel the pain for a crisis created in the financial sector. Especially when this investment could change the quality of our public services for generations. We need to marshall the evidence, make the arguments, and stand up for investment in quality schools.

Of course the landscape has changed and times are tight. But it can’t be right that our public services feel the pain for a crisis created in the financial sector

But what if, despite our protestations, budgets for new schools are cut? Everyone will have to be more innovative and rethink how quality public buildings and spaces can be designed and delivered on reduced budgets.

That in turn means properly recognising the part refurbishment can play, with a greater role for intelligent design in transforming existing spaces. And although we don’t want identikit schools popping up everywhere, that doesn’t mean we can’t look at how individual components might be standardised.

“What about procurement?” I hear you cry. Absolutely, let’s look at how savings can be made. But no procurement route will guarantee quality. We can spend all day debating the merits of competitive dialogue or frameworks. The key to well-designed schools is always going to be a strong and capable client, and an inspired architect.

Above all, let’s recognise that this is about who we are as a society. Public buildings speak volumes about who we are and where we’re going. If Manchester hadn’t pushed for a landmark town hall during a devastating cotton famine, would it have led the industrial revolution then, and the green revolution today? I think not.

The Victorian Board Schools were significant public buildings that made a statement about the society they existed in, and many now are being given a new lease of life. In the same way, BSF, together with the primary capital and academies programmes, could change the future for generations of young people.

So, we have to make the argument for more investment. It won’t be easy. But everyone who cares about the everyday environment and working conditions for young people and teachers needs to rise to the challenge and stand up for quality schools.