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Can we build it? Only with teachers

Ask anyone - not just teachers - what they think makes a great school and they will have an answer. Some will talk about the importance of the staff, others the relevance of the curriculum, how teachers engage with children and their families, funding, or perhaps access to the latest technology.

What is certain is that there will be many different responses, and there will probably never be full agreement about what we want. Yet with an unprecedented investment in school buildings, we have to have some clarity of vision to make sure we get schools fit for the 21st century. In 10 or 15 years' time, we don't want to look back in disappointment after this huge spend and see schools built and designed for a world that no longer exists.

Buildings alone won't create an education system for the next generation. But a good learning environment can help, and a poor one can get in the way.

We're starting to see preliminary results from new buildings created under the Building Schools for the Future programme. But we don't have enough evidence from the schools being redeveloped, which could give us the chance to learn from other people's mistakes and successes.

The Great Schools Inquiry, which I'm chairing, will explore the role schools play in improving the life chances of young people.

Research by the Teacher Support Network and the British Council for School Environments found that almost nine out of 10 teachers believe the learning environment affects pupil behaviour; and almost one in three said the poor design of their schools affected their teaching.

As John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, argued recently on these pages, the programmes that have the greatest impact in education are often those that are co-created with the profession. This is no exception.

In embarking on this inquiry, we know we are part of a global debate about the future of education in a rapidly changing world. With limited resources and in a global financial recession, we have to get better at prioritising what works. There is an estimated Pounds 100 billion being invested in the UK's primaries and secondaries, as well as in further and higher education. Despite the difficulties that inevitably come with huge capital projects, the investment is vital.

The inquiry will have a key role in guiding the investment of our resources wisely. Teachers will be central to its success: their experience will help us to explore the issues that really matter and identify solutions. We want to hear from staff across the education system, as well as the design, construction and ICT industries - and, of course, the children and young people who use our schools.

Above all, we need a compelling and ambitious vision for what makes great schools for the 21st century. As Sunand Prasad, president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, said recently: "The schools we are building now should be living instruments, living tools that are truly transformational."

We need schools that welcome the community into the learning process, that nurture young people and the teachers and staff who work with them, and that provide the increasing range of services that young people, their families and those who live in the local area need. We have the chance to make it happen.

- To give evidence to the Great Schools Inquiry, see www.bcse.uk.netgreatschoolsinquiry.

Baroness Estelle Morris, Chair of the British Council for School, Environments' Great Schools Inquiry and a former education secretary.

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