Since the recession simple maths dictated we need to deliver more for less, but as with any equation, there is a tipping point

You would think that after four years of recession and two of drastic public spending cuts, most people would have learnt to be realistic about the likely scale of government funding for construction projects. But the outrage from certain quarters - including the RIBA - over the long-awaited school design guidance published this week shows that this is far from being the case (page 14).

The designs, which protect the size of teaching spaces but call for reductions to areas such as corridors and canteens, have been branded disparagingly as “restrictive”, “like shopping at Tesco”, and PLEB schools (“Price-Led Education Buildings”). These terms would probably baffle someone like Andy Sprakes, the headteacher of a pilot school in Doncaster built by Wates to roughly the new space standards, who earlier this year described his new building simply as “great”. It may not have had the flourish of some of the schools built in the lavish Building Schools for the Future era - but it certainly represented a huge improvement on the temporary accommodation his 900 pupils were being taught in.

Ever since the recession hit, simple maths has dictated that we need to deliver more for less. Of course, as with any equation, there is a tipping point

Ever since the recession hit, simple maths has dictated that we need to deliver more for less. Of course, as with any equation, there is a tipping point - build too cheaply, and whole life value is lost. But these designs are far clear of that danger: we are not talking about schools of poor quality that will need to be replaced within 10 or 20 years. There are some savings that are genuinely regrettable - the reduction in the opportunity for open plan learning, for example. And it’s to be hoped that tweaks to the guidance in respects like this will be considered as projects evolve.

But the truth is some schools are already being built to the overall area reductions suggested by the government - 15% for secondary, and 5% for primary - and teachers like Sprakes are satisfied with the results. The headteacher of the first Sunesis primary school, built by Willmott Dixon in Rugby, recently described her building as a “thoughtful adaptation” of the standardised basic design model.

Philip Watson of Atkins, which designed the project, said this week: “This is where we are. We have to build schools cheaper, and these designs can produce good quality learning environments. Sadly, when more money was available, basic functionality - like having buildings that didn’t overheat - was somehow overlooked in favour of wow-factor architecture.”

They might not be glamorous, but the key thing here is that these buildings can work - and crucially, teachers recognise this. So firms involved in school building should see their priority not in attacking the government over the design restrictions, but in two other key areas.

First, they need to find ways to make the buildings deliverable - and profitable - for the extremely tight outturn costs that officials have stipulated. And second, most challengingly, achieve this on sites where the installation of a standardised design is not straightforward. The designs may be published, but there is still a lot of work to be done by the industry - and pouring scorn over the specifications, potentially delaying new projects still further, isn’t going to help anyone.

Sarah Richardson, editor