Michael Gove A new breed of innovative school was beginning to emerge in England – until the government stepped in to help it with its Building Schools for the Future programme
We shape buildings and then they shape us, and of all the buildings that shape our futures, none are more important than schools. For generations, society has embodied its vision for the future in the structures it has designed for educating the young.
The gothic revival of the late 19th century, for example, produced buildings such as Lancing College in West Sussex and Keble College in Oxford, to imbue young minds with culture and values at a time of rapid industrialisation. The buildings were romantic because the vision was.
The sixties was another time of educational change, albeit with a different focus. The egalitarian temper of those times meant that buildings were, more often than not, examples of high modernism in action. The University of East Anglia, St Catherine’s College in Cambridge and Pimlico School in London all reflect that era powerfully.
In a way, the buildings of the sixties now look every bit as dated as the Victorian gothic buildings of Lancing and Keble. Although both eras were periods of great hope, they also left a mixed legacy – not least in education. Just as the rote learning of Victorian times fell out of fashion, now many of the educational theories from the sixties are being discredited. The idea that children of all abilities should be jumbled up together in classes where teaching is aimed indiscriminately at everyone, instead of being tailored to stretch the strongest and support the weakest, now seems naive. Abandoning tried and tested methods of teaching reading, such as synthetic phonics, resulted in a drop in standards and the tide is now turning back to traditional approaches.
Just as teachers are moving on from the mistakes of the sixties, so are schools. The best new buildings reflect a shift back towards a more classic teaching style. In one of our very best new schools – Mossbourne Community Academy in Hackney – the corridor space is designed to ensure there are no hidden areas in which bullying can take place and that all children can move between classes under the watchful eyes of staff. There’s a specially designed space for traditional morning assemblies and the dining hall (where they serve a mean lamb shank) is designed to ensure orderly queuing, with staff able to observe the goings-on in every part of the room.
Staff offices are positioned across the school, which reinforces a culture of respect for each subject and gets away from the “them and us” feel of closed-door staff rooms.
Mossbourne was designed by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners and it is a striking building of real grace. The true achievement of the architects, however, is not in creating a structure that impresses from a distance, but in delivering an environment that makes proper, traditional, academic learning easier.
The government has robbed future academies of freedom to innovate. It has rigged it so they will be run by local authorities
This is what the whole academy programme was meant to be about – encouraging innovation in the design of every aspect of schooling so more people can gain access to the high-quality teaching that was previously the preserve of the rich.
In the academies that have already been established, allowing innovation has produced positive results. Mossbourne has raced up the league tables, despite continuing to take a large number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Unfortunately, room for innovation in future academies has now been significantly restricted. The government has robbed them of their freedom to innovate in the curriculum. It has rigged the rules so that future establishments will be run, operated and controlled by local authorities. This means that instead of academies competing against one another and providing a goad and a spur to the existing local bureaucracy, they will be co-opted by it.
Also, crucially, the whole academy building programme has become mired in the Building Schools for the Future scheme, in which bureaucracy and centralised control of procurement and design denies space for individual thinking.
This is having perverse consequences. When I went around Mossbourne, one of the governors told me they couldn’t ask the Rogers to do any more work on the site because the firm wasn’t on the centrally approved list of architects. It’s as though Sir Christopher Wren were allowed to build the nave, but was banned from designing the dome of St Paul’s.
Buildings do shape us, and those who’ve sat too long in Whitehall now seem to be shaping school buildings that reflect them – rigid, static, conformist and afraid of innovation.
Michael Gove is MP for Surrey Heath and shadow secretary for children, schools and families