Fears that reduction in space standards for new schools of up to 15% could ‘squeeze’ classroom sizes

Michael Gove’s department has confirmed plans to relax the standards that set out the size of school buildings in a cost-cutting move that could lead to smaller classroom sizes.

The Department for Education said it planned to relax space standards for schools, with a reduction of the overall gross area averaging 15% in secondary schools and 5% in primary schools for the entire school build.

The move follows a review of space standards, first revealed in Building last year.

The department said the space standards for teaching spaces for primary and secondary schools would remain within the range of sizes recommended by the current Building Bulletin guidelines for schools (BB98 and BB99), but the government’s funding model for schools would now be based on the sizes at the bottom of that range.

The first wave of free schools have already been allowed to relax space standards, with some reducing sizes by as much as 10-15% beneath the minimum.

A DfE spokeswoman said: “The overall gross area previously funded assumed that room sizes were built in the middle of this range, but schools often chose to build classrooms at the lowest point of the range.

“The gross area now funded assumes that room sizes will still be within the range recommended in the BB98 and 99 but will usually be at the lowest point in the range.”

She said the new guidelines, built into the government’s funding formula, would see see ” a reduction of the overall gross area averaging 15% in secondary schools and 5% in primary schools for the entire school build”.

She said this would mean the average size of classrooms and other teaching spaces “might be reduced by around 5% in secondary schools”, but said area reductions could also be achieved by omitting, for example, separate ICT spaces in primary schools, reflecting the move towards the use of ICT devices in classrooms, or by reducing non-teaching areas such as corridors.

However, Caroline Buckingham, head of education at HLM architects, said much of this was already being done and the new standards would mean teaching spaces would be “squeezed”.

“This will be in the funding model, so all our clients will be saying, ‘That’s what we’ve got to build to now.

“But reducing corridor space; reducing toilets; reducing ICT space; moving storage space and cloakrooms into classrooms - this is stuff that’s already happening.

“We have been trying to increase classroom sizes, now it looks like we are going back to accepting smaller classroom sizes. There will be no breathing space.”

“The only reason for this is reducing cost - there is no other reason.”

Buckingham said the new guidelines would need to be developed alongside a thorough review of the education curriculum that looked at a smarter and more flexible use of school spaces and different teaching models.

Darren Talbot, Davis Langdon head of schools, said the move would “tighten things up from where they were two years ago”.

He said design and build teams would need to be “much smarter” about the use of space and would need to challenge schools to think hard about their brief.

He said there was potential for the guidelines to lead to “quite crude” approaches, but said “it all comes back to intelligent design”.

“It will place a real onus on getting the right design. Schools will need to be really challenged as they are putting their briefs together,” he said.

Simon Lucas, EC Harris head of education, said reductions in classroom size could be avoided, but it would depend on “being much smarter about how we deploy space as a whole.

“Schools will need to rethink the use of space. It is going to be a real test for the design process,” he said.