The disparity in terms of investment in England’s independent and state school buildings is huge, getting bigger and unacceptable, writes Jerry Tate
The current RAAC scandal – where 156 school buildings have been identified by the Department for Education as at risk, with 52 of these at risk of “imminent collapse” – is clear evidence of the underinvestment in our state school buildings. At Tate+Co we work in the education sector for independent schools and universities and we see the contrast in levels of investment from these institutions to state-run schools.
RAAC, or Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete, was used between the 1950s and the 1990s as an alternative to standard concrete; it was cheaper to install and lighter due to its “bubbly” texture.
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The risks of this material were understood as far back as 1961 and, with a 30-year lifespan, the buildings should have been replaced by now. The DfE had been monitoring the schools built using RAAC construction since 2018 and issued guidance in 2021 about how to “manage” such buildings but, when a RAAC beam that had been considered low risk collapsed over the summer, all schools which had been identified as having RAAC construction were labelled as being “potentially dangerous” and closed or partially closed.
We see a huge disparity in the level of capital investment, and ambition, between the independent and state sectors
This is a tragic disruption to the education of children following the pandemic caused by chronic under-investment. Capital spending for the DfE has shrunk from a high of £9.8bn in 2009-10 to a low of £4.9bn in 2021-22.
As a practice we see a huge disparity in the level of capital investment, and ambition, between the independent and state sectors. Our work with independent schools is truly focused on how to create the most enriching education experience for children.
We see independent schools developing new creative hubs to promote creative cross-disciplinary collaboration between arts, music and drama; innovation centres linking up engineering, design technology and IT departments; sixth-form study centres that allow collaborative learning between students; and pupil wellbeing areas to ensure pupils’ mental health is managed.
Independent schools are also considering their net zero carbon strategies and how they can create a campus that provides meaningful links with nature no matter what the school’s location. All of these are based on these schools’ understanding that a better learning environment can create better learning outcomes, as confirmed by a rising tide of research, for example the University of Salford’s 2014 Clever Classrooms report.
There is an incredible resource of design and construction talent in this country which is currently delivering exemplary learning environments for the independent school sector
In the state sector, by contrast, we are literally now talking about whether it is possible to provide the absolute minimum of accommodating all the pupils in a building that is safe. It is a truism to say that this is a function of money, which of course it is. But even in schools that do get rebuilt, there is an incredible lack of ambition.
We recently designed a prep and senior school campus for an independent provider, which happened to be adjacent to a state secondary that was under construction. Our client and I were very surprised to discover that the state school for the same number of pupils was 50% of our proposed floor area.
This was because the plans, which were based on the DfE “baseline” designs, contained literally none of the facilities that enriched the independent school’s learning environment. No pastoral spaces, no performance spaces, no teachers’ offices, no space that could accommodate a whole school assembly, no library or study area – to name just a few of these types of spaces.
There is an incredible resource of design and construction talent in this country which is currently delivering exemplary learning environments for the independent school sector. If we honestly want to create the best future for our nation’s young people, we should be using this untapped resource to create the best new and refurbished schools. It is already too late.
Jerry Tate is the founder of Tate+Co. He also teaches at the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL