With Sebastian James’ review of school procurement due imminently, Richard Simmons sets out his hopes and fears for the future of school design
Time will tell what impact the abolition of Building Schools for the Future will have on the quality of schools. But the subsequent commissioning of Sebastian James to review all areas of the Department for Education’s capital funding was very welcome.
BSF was complex and inefficient, and a simplification of the reams of regulation and procedures was long overdue. But the truth is that, breaking through the bureaucracy, BSF was just beginning to bear fruit. A lot of skills and experience had been acquired. Ideas were being shared between clients, contractors and designers. There was a mechanism that linked design quality to funding through minimum design standards. Is this all just going to disappear?
The trick which the James review must pull off is to build consideration for the particularities of individual sites into its equations
The James review is expected to cover a lot of ground: from capital allocation, maintenance and life cycle costs and performance measures, to design and procurement. We’ll almost certainly see some form of regional frameworks and a standardised approach to design, perhaps through centrally held design templates.
So what would make this work for design quality? First, there’s nothing inherently wrong with standardisation - it can help de-risk the design and construction processes. The problem comes if you focus only on efficiently designed component parts and not on the school as a whole, in its setting. The trick which the James review must pull off is to build consideration for the particularities of individual sites into its equations.
Given the available resources, we should expect to see much more refurbishment, too. You can standardise procedures for refurbishment. Standardising design is obviously much harder, given the variations in the existing stock. This is where BSF was beginning to produce some of its most intelligent design ideas, going well beyond a repairs strategy into modernising teaching and shared spaces, while keeping the character that so many people love in our older schools. If James can keep this particular baby in the bath it will be welcome.
Second, I think there’s huge scope for greater transparency in a new procurement model. We need all parties involved understanding the true delivery costs, based on real data for how much it really costs to build a school. Let’s never return to the dark art of BSF accounting, with an opaque system of local education partnerships in which contractors were never entirely clear about the figures.
Third, embedded within the new procurement model we need some form of design quality control measure. Something more meaningful and effective than an output specification. This should operate hand in glove with serious feedback on the performance and usability of buildings commissioned under the old regime. Are teachers really using flexible breakout spaces? What about energy use? Do triple height atria really work? Let’s find out! And act on what we can learn.
Fourth, standards. All our evidence suggests that minimum design standards had a major impact on the quality of new schools. It would be possible, and better, to have a lighter touch approach. But it doesn’t strike me that centrally managed minimum standards fit with the political direction of travel, and the same may be true for centrally held space standards. And yet the government must be sure that, just as with housing, life after BB98 still leaves sufficient in place to ensure that every new building is good enough.
Lastly, we have to see a clear commitment to sustainability. It will take targets and incentives to deliver low carbon schools on a routine basis. We must retain the idea of both environmental and social sustainability. On the one hand, there should be whole life carbon appraisals carried out at the early stages of design. On the other, we need to retain the idea of a school as the hub of a neighbourhood and see this reflected in all design templates and strategies for community use.
An awful lot hangs on the James review.
Richard Simmons is chief executive at Cabe
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