With its grand entrance, impressive atrium, relaxed restaurants and break-out spaces, Bexley Academy in south-east London is more blue-chip corporate headquarters than secondary school.
Yet a school it is, and its mould-breaking Foster and Partners design won it a place on the shortlist for this year’s Stirling prize. More significantly for educationalists, what was once a failing comprehensive, with only 2% of pupils gaining a C or higher at GSCE, now has 36% achieving these grades. Absenteeism has been slashed and a sixth form added.
Not surprisingly, the government wants to repeat the exercise with more of these academies – and the rest of the country’s 3500 secondary schools. And it’s ready to invest massively to get the kind of spaces that kids – and the rest of the community – can be inspired to learn in. These are laudable aims: it’s how schools should be. But it’s different for academies. They have access to wealthy sponsors and can sidestep a great deal of bureaucracy. Bexley had a visionary and wealthy patron, who commissioned the design from his pal Lord Foster, and found an inspirational head teacher and an equally inspirational educational consultant.
As became clear at the Understanding the Education Sector conference, organised by Building this week, replicating that success across the rest of the county’s schools over the next 15 years will be difficult. For one thing, the procurement route established for delivering this educational renaissance is bewildering. It’s supposed to work like this: local education partnerships, or LEPs, are to be set up by local education authorities in tandem with an organisation called Partnerships for Schools. This is a quango spawned by the Department for Education and Skills and Partnerships UK, which is the Treasury’s PFI arm. Local education authorities and Partnerships for Schools will each have a 10% stake in the LEP and the remaining 80% stake is to be taken by the private sector. Tenders for the first two LEPs have finally been let, and now everyone involved is watching them closely to see how they fare.
Construction consortiums that want to take a stake in an LEP will have to link up with architects and educationalists. They will bid for a mixture of PFI and conventionally funded new-build and refurbishment work. This is the first phase. They will then be offered the second phase if they achieve certain targets. Such long-term strategic partnering will help the authorities to better plan the work, so the theory goes. And if it’s a success, the LEP could be used for other things, such as turning around failing schools, or tackling primary schools. It might even be paid by exam results.
It’s perhaps not surprising, given the lack of quality in many PFI schools (the one featured on pages 44-48 is the exception), that the government wants to have its own people involved. Educationalists, though, are sceptical whether Partnerships for Schools will work. The problems are that local and central government do not play well together, that local education authorities lack understanding of what makes a building work, that nobody understands the system and that the scale of the task, and the potential for waste – particularly in fees – is huge. But if the challenges are immense, so is the prize: the biggest transformation in Britain’s schools since the war. If we succeed, the face of Britain could change for ever. Get it wrong … well we just can’t.
Denise Chevin, editor