Money may be tighter than a camel in a sandstorm, but we still have to improve our education infrastructure somehow. Ty Goddard gives a few pointers as to what we might do
The coalition government has announced £6.2bn worth of government spending cuts. There’ll be more to come, and uncertainty remains about the future of capital funding for the schools estate, with the government avoiding questions about Building Schools for the Future in parliament on 7 June while talking about a “review” of the initiative.
In pondering the vexed questions of where to go next, we need to remember that much of the school estate is beyond its design life. Of the 25,000 schools in England, 80% of primary schools and 74% of secondary schools were built before 1976.
A school environment isn’t a magic wand, but the pattern of results in new and refurbished schools suggest that it plays a pivotal part in learning. The first BSF schools produced a 10% improvement in the number of students achieving five A-C GCSEs against a national average improvement of 2.4%.
Despite 100 years of state education, there is still no national consensus on what makes a good school, so we have no standard against which designs can be measured
So we need to take stock and consider the ramifications of cuts carefully. We’re unlikely to see the same kind of commitment to bricks and mortar from this government as the last. So it’s up to us in the industry to develop new ideas and new approaches that respond to this new age.
We must differentiate between money for investment and the waste and bureaucratic baggage that comes with the current design and build processes. This is undoubtedly - and rightly - exercising the new government. We’ve always argued that the costs of waste and duplication are different from the investment itself: a contractor can spend £3-5m on preparing a bid.
In those exchanges in parliament I mentioned, the education secretary returned more than once to the need to build schools in a cost-effective and efficient manner.
Let’s hope this leads to a zero tolerance approach to bureaucracy. Any future funding needs to be focused on the buildings themselves and frontline investment.
The centrepiece of the coalition’s education policy is free schools and an expansion of the academies programme. But whatever the preferred model of delivery, the built environment will be an element in its success or failure. So we need to think critically about what our money is buying. Despite 100 years of state education, there is still no national consensus on what makes a good school, so we have no standard against which designs can be measured.
We also need to focus on what opportunities there are besides starting from scratch. Refurbishment has made up a significant proportion of school renewals over recent years, and mustn’t be overlooked.
Refreshing current schools is also an option in a climate of tight finances; the British Council for School Environments’ Big School Makeover programme shows what can be done with limited resources if there is also creativity and enthusiasm. Changes to an environment through an interior design programme, for example, or the provision of high quality furniture can make a difference.
And we should also look at re-using buildings that have become redundant, breathing new life into old offices and retail units. This would help create new spaces for learning and invigorate local communities and economies.
This creative thinking doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make our case. The government needs to consider carefully how and where the axe might fall. Ill-thought-out cuts to school capital programmes will store up trouble for future generations of teachers and learners.
School is where we teach today’s children to be tomorrow’s adults. It remains imperative for our future society and economy to build an educational infrastructure fit to shape our children for the challenges of the 21st century.
Ty Goddard is chief executive of the British Council for School Environments and co-founder of the Centre for School Design. “Rethinking School Capital Investment - the New 3Rs?” will be published on 21 June as part of National School Environments Week