There is a dramatic need to increase the number of school places, and that means opportunities for construction

Sarah Richardson 236

As schoolchildren returned to their classrooms this week, Michael Gove’s education department was confronted with an uncomfortable start-of-term lesson. Two powerful council bodies have published figures on the dire shortage of school places England is facing. The Local Government Association claims almost half of school districts will have more primary pupils than places within two years, with some areas facing a 20% shortfall. Meanwhile, the umbrella group London Councils estimates the capital will need 83,000 extra school places to be created between 2014 and 2017.

The research lays bare the scale of a problem that many have been warning about for the past two years - the need to dramatically increase the number of school places on offer at the same time as reducing costs. Building evaluates progress towards this holy grail this week in our annual education special.

The amount of work for construction in education is only set to rise

The reports also underline that, even though the government is now steadily increasing its expenditure on building schools again, the projected crisis will become a reality if the pace of building is not rapidly increased. So whether these places are funded centrally, by local authorities or, in part, by the private sector, the amount of work for construction in education is only set to rise.

This will at least be of relief to the many firms that retained their education expertise despite the halting of the £55bn Building Schools for the Future initiative in 2010, often by increasing work in the universities and colleges sector, which has remained an attractive market throughout recession (see this week’s interview).

But the question now facing some, in an era of constrained bidding resource, is whether individual schools projects are ones they want to be involved in - actually not so much in terms of margin, tight whichever market you’re in - but because of the work they are being asked to carry out.

The problem here isn’t a handful of architects deciding standardisation runs counter to their ethical being. As we reveal on this week, some practices have walked away from free school conversion projects because a lack of clear building standards has meant their being asked to deliver schemes that disregard years of learning about best practice in school building. The frustration is not because they can’t have a fancy glass atrium, but because architects have enough awareness to know that columns shouldn’t run down the centre of a classroom.

This isn’t to say that all free schools in converted buildings fall into that category. But it surely cannot be right that when architects on one part of the schools programme have to follow a set of baseline designs, those on another are being asked to ignore the same learning that fed into those standards. Similarly, there is still concern that some of the cost cutting is being targeted in areas that construction firms know will ultimately increase thewhole-life running cost to the school - and ultimately the government.

The work done by architects, contractors and consultants to bring down the cost of school buildings so far is already achieving results that many, hand on heart, didn’t think possible. This is enabling a new generation of school buildings that will deliver good quality teaching spaces, without the wastage that accompanied some of the school buildings of the past. But those same firms will ultimately only find solutions to the problems set by the client. Which is why the government has a moral duty to ensure that fixed, sensible minimum standards are upheld - not just on its flagship Priority Schools Building Programme, but on all the schools built under its watch.

Sarah Richardson, Building editor