Industry fears confusion as Gove shifts policy from standardisation to basic design guidance

The government has shelved plans to develop detailed standardised school designs in favour of publishing basic design guidance, Building understands.

In a significant policy shift, it is understood that the Department for Education no longer has plans to develop standardised designs for its school programmes - a central recommendation of Sebastian James’ government-commissioned review into schools procurement - and will instead issue only “baseline” design guidance.

It is understood that the “baseline information” will give only basic recommendations on the specifics of school design and will fall short of setting rigid specifications for school building.

Mairi Johnson, deputy director of design at the Education Funding Agency (EFA), the government’s schools delivery body, confirmed this week that this approach would be adopted on the first round of the government’s £2bn Priority Schools Building Programme, expected to come to tender in September after a six month delay.

“It won’t be standardisation - we’re moving away from that. But there will be some baseline design information,” she said.

Building understands the “baseline information” approach will become embedded in school procurement, with no plans being developed for standardised designs, despite months of apparent government support.

In its initial response to the James review last July the government said it would “move to procure [standardised designs] immediately”. A subsequent letter to local authorities from education secretary Michael Gove emphasised that he wished “to develop a suite of standardised drawings and specifications for school buildings”.

Simon Lucas, EC Harris head of education, said the “baseline approach” was a “definite shift”. “They’re trying to find a balance between standardisation on the one hand and completely bespoke on the other,” he said.

A growing list of contractors are developing standardised designs and, although these will still be seen as central by industry to achieving the government’s 30% cost reduction targets, industry experts said the lack of leadership from the government over the issue risks creating confusion over how much freedom local authority clients would expect in the design of their schools.

“There is a lot of frustration about the lack of direction, definitely,” one insider said.

Mark Robinson, chief executive of Scape, a local authority-backed building procurement body, said: “It’s disappointing to hear this news. We need clear reasons as to why the government seems to be backtracking on this commitment.

“It’s not good enough if the plans are being ditched just because parts of the building industry are anti-standardisation, or because some perceive it as cheap and of poor quality.”

In January, Scape’s joint-venture partner Willmott Dixon started work on its first off-the-shelf school in Warwickshire after receiving approval from the county council. Willmott Dixon’s Sunesis range of standardised schools recently received Design Council approval.

Robinson said: “We must defend our position - and the substantial investment already made in developing high quality standardised designs - because in these austere times, standardisation offers the most efficient way of delivering new and improved education facilities.”

Simplified regulations

Mairi Johnson also said this week that the the government’s new “simplified” school premises regulations would be implemented in September.

She said DfE had tasked the EFA with reducing and guidance to 25% of its current level and that the regulations would now only cover aspects of school premises that were not covered by other bits of legislation, such as health and safety, in a bid to reduce bureaucracy.

These would include aspects such as medical accommodation, acoustics, lighting, water supplies and outdoor space, as well as toilets and washing facilities, although she said the new regulations would no longer prescribe how many toilets schools should have, only that there should be “enough”.

“We want the schools to decide,” she said.

She said the regulations would also include area guidance, but that would not be based on Building Bulletin 98, which currently sets the space standards for schools. “BB98 is the past,” she said.

As Building revealed in March, DfE plans to reduce the size of secondary schools by around 15% and primaries by around 5% and, more controversially, special educational needs schools by 20%.

In a separate development, revealed by Building this week, the EFA said it had no plans to publish the post-occupancy evaluation (POE) research conducted by its precursor body Partnership for Schools on the previous government’s Building Schools for the Future Programme (BSF).

This is despite calls from the industry and the British Council for School Environments to publish the research to help feed into future programmes.

Building Future Education UK

Hear Mairi Johnson and Simon Lucas speak on the design and cost of building schools at the BFE UK conference on 9-10 May 2012 at the Business Design Centre, London. Find out more and register FREE for the exhibition or paid for conference online >>