Former headmistress Valerie Bragg has been a leading player in implementing Labour’s schools strategy. Here she tells us about why architecture doesn’t really matter – and how she got on with Norman Foster at the Bexley academy.

Valerie Bragg
Valerie Bragg

Valerie Bragg is a formidable woman. Her track record as an educationalist speaks for itself. The former head teacher was enlisted by Tony Blair to advise the government on the best way to turn around failing schools in the UK. She is also a figure of authority and dignity, and it is easy to revert the role of pupil in front of teacher.

Perhaps this was the case when she worked with Foster and Partners on Bexley Business Academy, which was the first city academy scheme. Foster was chosen by his close friend Sir David Garrard, then chairman of developer Minerva and the moving force behind the Bexley academy. Bragg was there at the behest of the government. The two clearly did not see eye-to-eye on all matters. “I had two long sessions with Norman and we argued about certain things,” she says frankly. “He was more concerned with the outside of the building and I was more concerned with what went inside it.”

She believes that a successful school has little to do with the design of its buildings and environment, and everything to do with its staff. She talks about the complex process of turning schools around, how small a part the architecture plays in it, the battles she has with designers, and offers advice to companies in the building industry who want to crack the education market.

Bragg, 58, is sitting in the large living room of her beautiful old house in Oxford, complete with an outdoor swimming pool in a splendid, well-tended garden. Surrounded by photographs of her five children, she talks about her life dedicated to other people’s. “I’ve spent all my life in education,” she says. “The children inspire me.”

The three-E approach

Bragg used to be a head teacher in Stourport on Severn in Worcestershire, but her rise as a political player began with Blair’s declaration of the three highest priorities of of schools to New Labour in the run up his election victory in 1997. These were: education, education and education. Bragg’s 3Es, a not-for-profit charitable trust, was formed in the same year, and has been drafted in to change the fate of teachers and children at failing schools in places such as Croydon, Lewisham, Islington, Slough, Liverpool, Hackney, Derby, Woking, Camberley and Guildford. Her aim is to boost pupil numbers, attendance records, exam results, and to reduce the number of exclusions. In the course of doing this, she has probably learned as much about the English and Welsh educational system as anyone alive.

She was first appointed by Surrey council to rescue Kings Manor School in Guildford. “Turning a school around is an incredibly complex process,” she says. “It takes two years before you can even open it again. You have to pay attention to detail, and one thing of particular importance is working with the staff.”

The process is not fluffy and vague, Bragg must meet specific and tangible targets on attendance, exam results and exclusions, year on year in order to achieve a bonus. And 3Es has not yet missed a target. At Bexley, before Bragg’s intervention, only about 3% of pupils were achieving the government’s benchmark of five GCSEs at grade A* to C. Last year, 35% of students achieved those grades. In Birmingham, the school where 3Es worked before, the pass rate was also around 3%. Now it is 95%.

What’s in a building?

It is Bragg’s plain and simple belief that a building does not have that much influence on the performance of a school. “You can’t just give a failing school a new building and expect it to work,” she says. “A good school should be able to operate in a marquee or an aircraft – the building is the icing on the cake rather than a necessity.”

So, it would have been interesting to be a fly on the wall when Bragg and Foster were thrashing out ideas for Bexley. The original school was a 1970s eyesore that had been used as a backdrop in the filming of Clockwork Orange. And life at Bexley school seemed to be imitating Stanley Kubrick’s dark vision of a welfare state gone wrong: its pupils’ results and attendance records were dire. It was also a fabulous opportunity for Bragg: Garrard, the scheme’s sponsor, had given the team behind it a free hand, and she saw this as an opportunity to crystallise “the vision of all my time in education”. Foster, on the other hand, had designed only one other school.

In retrospect, conflict was between Foster and Bragg was probably inevitable. Bragg says she has “the ability to be like a conceptual architect”, and adds that Foster’s team did not understand education. Foster, she says, was too focused on symmetry and “just likes grey, black and white”. Bragg’s vision of a good school is more colourful and commercial. She wants to inject something of the office or hotel environment into them, and at Bexley she created an environment with “a nice open entrance with displays, a good learning resource centre, a fun and exciting restaurant like a cyber cafe, interesting science labs and hotel toilets.”

Foster was too focused on symmetry. He just likes grey, black and white

Among her criticisms of construction firms working in the education sector is that most do not have educationalists on board: “They might claim to have but in reality they haven’t.”

With different working experiences, it is no wonder that culture clashes have occurred. Bragg says that sometimes money is not used as well as it could be and that QSs are not as outspoken as they should be, because they do not want to risk future contracts with clients.

However, Bragg does concede that a pleasant building can make a difference, albeit a small one. “It is not the building that is important, it is how it is managed. But it can make a difference,” she says. “At Bexley when the children first saw it they would say, ‘but this is for the posh kids,’ then they started to really appreciate it, so there was a difference in the way they behaved.”

Qualifying the concession, she adds: “But the building is not as important as people think.”

Making the grade

Bragg says the industry still has a lot to learn about what a school building should be like. Clearly unafraid of confrontations. she says: “What I find with the design team is that it’s a constant battle to tell them we do not want a complicated building because teachers and children do not understand them. A teacher should be able to open a window if a classroom is too warm, not have to operate an air-conditioning system that is expensive to maintain.”

Her opinions were echoed two weeks ago in a report on 11 of the UK’s new city academies, undertaken by PriceWaterhouse Coopers on behalf of the Department for Education and Skills. “Teachers said that too much emphasis had been placed on making bold architectural statements at the expense of some of the more practical requirements of modern learning spaces,” the report said. They criticised classroom layouts, lack of storage space and insufficient office space for staff preparation.

One thing that Bragg certainly does share with the industry is her dislike of red tape, bureaucracy and changes to the Building Regulations that are unworkable in a school.

“The regulations are not really in tune with how teaching is. The government does listen, but it’s taken a while.”

Valerie offers some advice to private sector companies that aspire to design, build and manage schools: “They need to be good listeners and not just pay lip service.” She criticises what she describes as narrow-mindedness, when designers and consultants hinder projects by being too set in their ways. “There’s a tendency to think, ‘I’ve been to school, so I know what a school should be like’. But teaching is very different now. What’s important is what goes inside, not outside.”

Bragg’s work is not over, and among other projects she is bidding as part of a consortium for work on the government’s Building Schools for the Future programme in Burnley. Her presence will be noted, as she brings more teachers, children and designers into line.