Over 40 schools and new academies are due to be built, remodelled or refurbished in local authorities throughout the Gateway region as part of Building Schools for the Future. But iit has deeper significance to the Thames Gateway
Ask most people for one word to sum up the Thames Gateway project and they will probably say ‘regeneration’, but this safe, and somewhat obvious choice, lacks in the aspirational quality which is so essential to making this particular scheme a success.
To my mind ‘opportunity’ is a better fit – particularly when it comes to the role of education and the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme in this ambitious, multi-faceted project.
The Thames Gateway is about unlocking the potential of a region. And that is why the importance of the BSF programme – which is dedicated to unlocking the potential of every young person by ensuring they have access to safe, welcoming and inspiring learning centres – should be not be overlooked.
21st century schoolsBSF is programme without peer, it is the largest and most radical educational transformation project seen in this country since the Victorian era. Schools the length and breadth of England will be rebuilt or refurbished, providing 21st century learning environments for around 3.3 million young people.
Over 40 schools and new academies are due to be built, remodelled or refurbished in local authorities throughout the gateway region. While projects like the Olympics and Crossrail lay claim to the lion’s share of the headlines about the Thames Gateway, I truly believe that BSF’s contribution to the revitalisation of this area is significant, with its impact being felt far beyond the school gates.
I can say this with some certainty because BSF is about much more than just bricks and mortar. We are taking this opportunity to take a long, hard look at our schools and making sure that this once-in-a-generation investment results in not simply new versions of the same old schools, but environments which are fit for the 21st century and which enable young people to leave education with better life chances and the skills that equip them to enter the knowledge economy.
PartnershipsAs the name of our organisation – Partnerships for Schools – suggests, working in partnership is in our DNA. What is more, as the delivery body for BSF, we have created a new model of public private partnerships, known as Local Education Partnerships, to do this where the commercial imperatives and public sector needs are aligned more closely than before. The long-term exclusive relationship – usually for 10 years – forges genuine partnership serving both the interests of the public and private sector, and ultimately benefiting young people, teachers and local communities.
The LEP is also proving to be sufficiently flexible to procure wider local services beyond BSF schools. Across the country we are seeing examples of LEPs bringing procurement expertise – and value for money – to the delivery of primary schools, leisure facilities and health centres as part of wider regeneration schemes.
The focus on improving the quality of life for communities in the Thames Gateway is something which goes to the very heart of what we are trying to achieve in BSF. With some schools currently only in use from the start of the school day until the final bell and for just 38 weeks a year, BSF is opening the door to wider use of facilities by students, parents and local residents and even businesses throughout the year.
A first for GravesendIfield School in Gravesend, the first BSF school to open in the Gateway area, exemplifies this new approach. The original 1960s building was extensively refurbished, opening with new facilities including a hydrotherapy pool, and specialist classrooms for textiles, food technology and ICT teaching in March 2008.
Ifield is a District Special School catering for 150 pupils with Special Educational Needs. It places real emphasis on interaction with its local community. For them this means making facilities such as its woodland area – a peaceful rural-style retreat from the urban environment – available to other schools and local people; on sharing specialist materials and knowledge with teachers in mainstream schools; and operating an open door policy for parents and carers to enhance communication.
New and improved sporting facilities, for community as well as school use, are an important part of BSF. However, we should not ignore the role of arts and culture in helping to breathe life into communities by bringing together people of all ages and backgrounds in creative endeavours.
BSF sport and cultural project managers, based jointly at Sport England and the Arts Council, are currently liaising with stakeholder groups across the Thames Gateway to identify ways to use BSF as a springboard for cultural provision.
The BSF team has already identified three schools - in Tower Hamlets, Newham and Barking & Dagenham - with a view to sourcing additional funding to help meet the aspirations of these schools and their wider communities.
Although BSF is a national programme, its roots are planted firmly in local soil with decisions about what to build, and where, made by local authorities, drawing on consultation and engagement with local people of all ages.
In many cases, contractors working on BSF use local supply chains creating employment opportunities. There is also a commitment to developing skills of the next generation of construction industry workers, with some BSF contractors providing much-needed apprenticeship opportunities, such as recently announced in Kent.
For the first time, through BSF local authorities are able to consider the needs of their schools on an area-wide basis. As part of this they are required to calculate projected pupil numbers for a 10-year period to help ensure that we are rebuilding the right schools in the right places according to shifting demographic trends.
BSF is therefore able to respond to the growth of conurbations, or as in the case of Barking Riverside the creation of new communities, by ensuring that the school infrastructure is in place to cope with demand now and in the future. This is a far more satisfactory solution than that which is currently available in similar situations with students travelling to different areas, sometimes miles away from home.
The futureWithin the next year construction will have started on more than a dozen BSF schools in the Thames Gateway, and many others are making good progress towards key milestones. While it is still too early to see the impact of BSF schools in this area of the country, elsewhere research is indicating that new learning environments are helping to improve behaviour, attendance and to raise aspirations.
Pupils at the first brand new BSF to be completed said they feel safer and enjoy going to school more now because of their new surroundings. They feel proud to belong to the school community, and as a result incidents of bullying and vandalism are on the wane.
More students are becoming enthused by learning, and say they plan to continue their education after the age of 16. Examination results have also improved in BSF schools as headteachers stress that purpose-built and refurbished facilities have created new opportunities to deliver high-quality teaching and learning in a first-class environment, spurring the whole school community to work together to reach their full potential.
Increased employment opportunities, a foundation for community cohesion, inspiring young people to see the value of education – I hope and expect BSF’s contribution to the Thames Gateway to be measured in many more ways than simply examination results, but for its role in helping this region fulfil its potential through investing in its people.
Tim Byles is chief executive of Partnerships for Schools