The departure of the Education Funding Agency’s design chief is a good time to take stock of the state of education building, and assess what role construction is to play in the future of school design

Stephen Beechey, group investment director and head of education, Wates

When the Education Funding Agency (EFA) announced that its design chief Mairi Johnson would stand down in January, it sent ripples across the construction and design communities. Some fear her departure marks a shift away from the Department for Education’s (DfE)embrace of standardised design; others that it signifies a change in the relationship between government, construction and designers. It is certainly the “end of an era” and time to reflect on her impact at the EFA, what went right, what went wrong and, most importantly, what key issues construction still needs to address when it comes to standardised school design. So, does Mairi’s exit mean that the standardised approach is in jeopardy, and are there any serious, outstanding issues that the government and construction has overlooked?

Handed a brief to prioritise design during the school procurement process, Mairi’s arrival seven years ago at what was then Partnerships for Schools (PfS), marked the start of a renewed commitment by the DfE to put design at the heart of the school building process. At a time when clarity over this issue was sorely needed over everything from architectural priorities through to baseline school designs, the new regime quickly recognised that urgent steps were needed to correct the excesses of BSF. Progress was made on this point - but this is only part of the story. Contractors needed to respond to a raft of changes from the EFA, but only some grasped the nettle and embraced the next phase of school building with an alignment to the EFA’s baseline designs.

However, breaking with the architectural legacy of BSF was a mammoth effort and, while many of the key objectives that were set in 2011 have been achieved, there is still much more to do to meet the ambitious goals of the James Review. Despite the view in some quarters that the BSF years were a golden age for the sector, they need to remember the very real (and well documented) overspend on projects. If the new and improved EFA is to make good on its aims, it can’t be tempted away from delivering more cutting-edge school buildings for less, and must not be distracted by those who call for the excesses of BSF to resume.

Standardised design needs to remain a fpart of the conversation. The message that the standardised approach doesn’t limit innovation, but encourages it, still isn’t getting through to some quarters. I can point to any number of schools where standardised designs have been applied successfully and provided an environment that makes a big impact on student outcomes, without compromising on aesthetics. The James Review’s argument that the “design and procurement process for BSF was not designed to create either high and consistent quality or low cost” has to be foremost in the DfE’s thinking.  

This should be viewed as the moment when, as a sector, construction took on board its achievements, increased its involvement on the design front and moved onto the next phase of school building

A more recent development at the EFA, which will be a key part of Mairi’s legacy, is the facilities output specification (building requirements by another name). This document is more onerous than previous specifications in a number of areas - for instance, there is a requirement to use climate-based daylight modelling, which may increase costs. This state-of-the-art analysis requires datasets to be produced through a modelling process that takes into account seasonal and regional differences in sunlight and temperature, which is compared against a pre-defined standard. Bespoke software for this is still in its development. It may be this is an important addition to base requirements, but we need to be careful when making these sorts of changes if we are to maintain value for money.

This is the point where the industry needs to assume a greater level of responsibility and take on a measure of self-regulation. A cross-industry committee geared towards generating recommendations on school design could be a significant step forward. Drawing together ideas from contractors, architects and government representatives to decide on a new set of standards for school design could also be an option - the infrastructure sector has nationally-focused initiatives and groups like the National Infrastructure Planning Association. Why should this not be the case in the education sector? Such a group could shake up how we think about these issues, while considering the concerns of all interested parties. What’s stopping us from setting one up?

More broadly, Mairi’s decision to leave the EFA should be viewed as the moment when, as a sector, construction took on board its achievements, increased its involvement on the design front and moved onto the next phase of school building. We’ve entered a period of reflection and retrenchment - now it’s time for construction to step up to the plate and deliver on its aspirations.  

Stephen Beechey is managing director, education sector and investment solutions at Wates Construction