The government wouldn’t reveal its post-occupancy review of schools - so Building will
Back in July 2010, when education secretary Michael Gove scrapped the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme, the announcement was met with outrage from local authorities deprived of the cash to renew crumbling school buildings, and the construction supply chains who had invested upfront in readiness to deliver much needed improvements.
But Gove’s department, then and since, argued vociferously that there was an extensive silver lining to the cancellation. Namely, the chance to review and learn lessons from an era of school building that, despite successes, was also littered with outrageous costs and examples of wasteful, inefficient design.
Schools with expensive technologies are being vastly outperformed by those who simply rely on intelligent basic design
This supposed commitment to learning from the past is what makes it so damning that Gove’s department has, for months, failed to make public a major post-occupancy review of new and refurbished school buildings carried out by delivery body Partnerships for Schools (PfS). But days after PfS’ successor body, the Education Funding Agency (EFA), stated that it had no intention of publishing the review, Building has obtained a leaked copy.
Over the next three days, we will exclusively reveal key findings from the review the government would not make public. In a series of special reports, we will expose the lessons from years of school building that the government apparently did not deem it necessary to share with those designing and building the next generation of schools.
Today, we begin by showing the general level of staff and student satisfaction with the overall environment in those renewed and refurbished secondary and primary schools covered by the review, as well as detailing the results of the peer reviews by education and design specialists.
Tomorrow, however, we will reveal the appallingly poor energy performance of many new schools, and the clear failure of recent building programmes to meet sustainability goals. We will reveal:
- How schools with expensive technologies are being vastly outperformed by those who simply rely on intelligent basic design.
- A shocking difference in annual energy costs between the best and worst performing schools of up to £85,000 a year - the cost of a senior member of teaching staff.
- How PFI consortia were financially rewarded for good energy performance at design stage, even if the energy performance of the completed building was in practice far poorer.
Then, on Friday, we will publish the review’s full list of recommendations - including, ironically, the call for the post-occupancy evaluation to “shared widely” and built into future design development.
Without sharing conclusions from years of design development with industry, how can officials guarantee that the elements that have the biggest impact are the ones which are preserved in future designs?
The explanation given by the EFA’s Mairi Johnson last week for not releasing the report was that “It was done under the previous government and was an analysis of BSF schools, and we are not building BSF schools anymore.” But it is this argument, not the review, which is irrelevant.
The review (which, by the way, covers not just BSF schools, but also academies and primaries) reveals both successes and failures of schools built over recent years - and covers not just new build schemes, but also refurbishments. Many projects are of a scale which could still be funded today.
Perhaps the current government might not feel comfortable about reflecting on the positive outcomes of Labour’s flagship programme. But without sharing conclusions from years of design development with industry, how can officials guarantee that the elements that have the biggest impact are the ones which are preserved in future designs - and in the standardised school building models that are set to form a bigger and bigger part of the education estate?
And when it comes to sustainability, how can the Department for Education (DfE) make a convincing case for dropping BREEAM requirements, with nothing to replace them, when there is clearly still a widespread failure to understand how to improve the energy efficiency of schools - and thereby a huge potential to dramatically reduce both environmental impact and tax payer footed fuel bills?
Of course, huge budget cuts mean much less scope for the expensive sustainable technologies of recent years. But then the report shows that it is not these, but clever design, that produces the biggest savings - meaning there is no excuse to bury the green agenda amid an era of austerity.
When DfE announced it was scrapping BSF, its statement included a quote from a leading educationalist, which read: “To learn lessons from past experience in order to find a better way of working for the future can only be a good thing.”
Somewhere amongst its political sensitivity to any praise for the BSF era, this government seems to have forgotten that principle. And if it does not re-embrace it, it risks squandering its limited funds on buildings that, with high energy costs and the prospect of later remodelling work, could act as a drain on education funding for generations to come.