The James Review talks a lot of sense and clarifies what challenges lie ahead. It should inspire architects to use the best of their skills to meet them

The long-awaited James Review finally hit our desks just before the end of term. My first impression: a sensible, pragmatic review addressing inefficiencies in procurement, bureaucracy, variation in approach and continuing maintenance issues. 

Some of the recommendations in the report are prescriptive and detailed - for example, the gathering of all local building conditions data and reducing bureaucracy surrounding BREEAM (although it is interesting that BREEAM is chosen as the example when other guidance was far more onerous).
Recommendations such as the Building Bulletins 98/99 : Area Guidelines for Schools, are more generic and unclear, and new terms have been introduced including, “central body”, “responsible bodies”, “local investment plans”, and the single flexible budget under the new “education funding agency”. For the construction industry, this means learning a new language and applying it to our projects.

I welcome the recognition that designers need a clear brief and list of requirements from clients - “the expert, intelligent client” as the report defines them.

Although there is a need for standardisation and efficiency improvements, let us not forget the creation of a community, inside and outside of the classroom

It also makes sense to have a standardised approach to school design. This is nothing new for designers - indeed some excellent and innovative work was carried out on exemplar designs in 2003 and Standard Specification Layout Dimensions (SSLD) as recently as 2009, so let’s use what we’ve learnt before rather than reinvent the wheel entirely.

We can achieve the 15% area reduction and improve efficiencies through sharing of dining and social spaces and plant areas. However, the focus on detail must be balanced with a view of the bigger picture, including market forces; construction costs are increasing as oil and material prices rise, and this will affect the cost of education projects.

Another key consideration is that the majority of the school estate comprises existing buildings and, as the report points out, at least 2,500 secondary schools still need to be modernised. However, the recommendations on the standardised approach refer to new build with no reference to how this applies to existing buildings.

The James Review also identifies the condition of the facilities, alongside pupil needs, as key determinants for setting priorities for investment: “There should be a clear, consistent department position on what fit-for-purpose facilities entail.” 

A strategic approach is required to deliver high-quality teaching space, which embraces standardisation and cost-effectiveness, while also making the most of existing buildings. Allowing buildings to remain “untouched” or “lightly refurbished” because they are deemed too costly and risky to upgrade would leave too many school estates in poor condition.

All of us want our children to be taught in facilities that have a sense of place, culture and ethos. What do you remember about your school - the entrance, the assembly hall, the playground, the way you felt in each of these spaces - in essence, the sense of place?

So, although there is a need for standardisation and efficiency improvements, let us not forget the creation of a community, inside and outside of the classroom. External, public spaces - and movement between them - play a key role in creating identity and place making. The character of our villages, towns and cities are embedded in lanes, streets and spaces - and so it is with our schools.

So, having read the James Review, I find myself inspired - it’s a good time to be an architect. More than ever, we need to bring our creative ability, innovation and clear thinking to meet current challenges:

  • To use our masterplanning skills to look at the whole school estate as well as individual building conditions, life cycle and running costs to determine areas for potential development or areas for land disposal.
  • To achieve the balance between a standardised approach, locality and innovation to improve quality, cost and delivery time.
  • To have a good understanding of existing building estates, improvements, the risks and the costs to provide quick, robust solutions.

Caroline Buckingham is director and head of education at HLM Architects