Building Schools for the Future can be a real force for good if we tackle the flaws in the bid process. Once that’s done, says Paul Foster, we can radically change the way children learn

A fair amount of blame has been heaped on Building Schools for the Future (BSF) recently, but a lot of it misses the most important point: that BSF is a force for good. It involves a huge capital investment in the education system, which has knock-on effects for the whole country, strengthening the economy and improving society.

The many achievements of the past few years should be celebrated rather than denigrated: capital investment in schools is up from £700m in 1996/97 to £5.8bn this year, and will rise to £8bn by 2010/11. Seventy-two local authorities are now in BSF, covering nearly 1,000 secondary schools; 46 academies are open and a further 78 are under construction.

Where bidders should come in for criticism is that many are overly commercialising the partnering and design process, to the detriment of communities and the local education partnership (LEP) – that is, the public–private partnership between the local authority and the private sector bidder. For their part, many councils are simply not geared up to manage this level of complexity.

As BSF stands, Partnerships for Schools runs the risk of just producing new schools for old, with little transformation of learning outcomes. This is a direct consequence of the overly complex procurement process in which design decisions are being taken.

The competitive bidding process has three major drawbacks. First, it only gives schools and councils 12 weeks in which to fix the key design decisions.

Second, three designs are put forward, which is a waste of time, effort and money. The value of aborted design costs by failed bidders is monumental – enough to pay for a whole new primary school every BSF wave.

Bidders aren’t thinking about how to challenge the learning process. Why do designs stick to old-format classrooms?

The third drawback is that there is a default to accept the norm, which often means opting for the lowest cost, rather than the best design, or choosing the school that confines to accepted design-and-build parameters.

This point is critical, in that bidders aren’t thinking about how to challenge the learning process. For instance, why do designs stick to old-format classrooms, with formal “bells” or time periods splitting up the day?

By contrast, some schools are implementing truly innovative thinking. Hellerup and HGO schools in Copenhagen have no classrooms or structured spaces and the buildings incorporate sliding doors, revolving library walls and mobile furniture. New Line Learning Cornwallis, a technical college in Kent, has used IT to take personalised learning to new levels, ensuring an open-plan design where staff act more as coaches than traditional “chalk and talk” teachers.

Some of the problems of BSF have stemmed from poor decision-making at local authority level, where they are frequently unused to the processes involved with such large investment sums. This is where the private sector has a role to play by exporting its experience in efficiency planning.

Solutions to common BSF problems are currently being prepared by the Department for Education and Skills, called standard designs for learning, which will enable councils to give much tighter direction on desired output specs. This will help spread best practice, reduce waste and allow bidders and local authorities to concentrate on searching for more innovative solutions. The experience councils have gained from first-wave BSFs will only help this process.

As local authorites become more experienced and guideline frameworks tighten, it can only be hoped they will challenge existing stereotypes. Some builders have already grasped this and need to be applauded, but they are few in number. Let’s hope others follow their lead.