If you care about school design, you’ve probably thrown up your hands in despair by now. But John Lyall is optimistic we can build on the achievements of recent years

Hands up, all those who think that the current government’s effect (so far) on school building is both confusing and ridiculous. Just as I thought, the vast majority of you. Suddenly it is all about limiting expenditure, and no longer about “value” or transforming young lives.

We architects have become “unnecessary” (Toby Young), and “expensive” (Michael Gove), in the previously noble art of designing schools. Apparently this is because our wonderful, inspiring designs have made no impact on academic achievement and because we have creamed off oodles of fees.

Viewing Britain through the coalition government’s new austerity spectacles, it appears that the way to create new schools is to roll them out from a modular production line and squeeze the areas down so that the significantly reduced costs can allow politicians to say: “There you are, we said it was possible to build schools cheaper!”

This craziness, which the contracting and design professionals are still open mouthed about, happened so suddenly last year that it is not surprising that some of it is getting a degree of come-uppance. The recent successful legal challenge by a number of local authorities over the premature axeing of their Building Schools for the Future programmes was almost inevitable to most observers, and the merger of Cabe with the Design Council means that design review will still be alive and kicking.

No longer would the structure of the school day be measured by session after session of young people in a square room all facing in one direction

Cabe’s official involvement in BSF from 2007 began to focus minds on achieving better architecture. No design approval from Cabe would mean no funding and no building programme. Several canny contractors started to use better, more imaginative architects, and gradually more schemes were beginning to pass the design review.

Over the past decade BSF wasn’t the only game in town. Really significant, cleverly designed schools and academies were being built through different procurement methods. However, BSF represented radical change and large volume transformation. This dream or vision was not just in the design of school buildings but even more in the way in which our kids are taught. No longer would the structure of the school day be measured by session after session of young people in a square room all facing in one direction.

In spite of the doom and gloom about the new government’s schools programme, I am optimistic that we can still achieve great new schools, and brilliantly transformed existing schools. The contractor/architect relationship is key to this: the two disciplines have grown closer over the past few years concentrating on the issue of schools. We must not lose that concerted focus.

Can a decent school be built for £500 per metre? Probably not. What will happen if space standards are reduced further? What if we have pattern-book designs and modular construction? For many of us, these are not the right questions. I would rather look at reducing excessive cost, needless bureaucratic waste in the overall procurement process,
and ensure that we move forward with the high-quality, clever school designs that have begun to appear.

One of the attributes of a cultured society is the quality of space for learning and the contribution school buildings make to children’s lives. While pupils don’t physically suffer because of poor or mediocre architecture, they do benefit in spirit from better buildings, just as patients recover more quickly in better designed hospitals. As a profession we must be more responsive and convincing to the government to prove this case.

Architects do not carry out enough research to analyse the effects of our work. We sense the benefits and negatives, but don’t take time to prove them. Perhaps contractors can work with architects or help fund such research. After all, the government tends to believe contractors more than architects.

John Lyall is managing director of John Lyall Architects and also a founder of the Architects4Education consortium