Future perfect

New schools are more than just bricks and mortar. George Cole discovers how changing attitudes to learning will inform the education centres of the future

It has been described by Tony Blair as "the greatest school renewal programme in British history". Building Schools for the Future is an ambitious scheme to transform the schools of today into learning centres that are fit for the 21st century. Under the first wave of the BSF scheme, around 180 schools in 14 local authorities will share pound;2.2bn of investment. The Government says that under the scheme schools will be rebuilt, remodelled or upgraded to provide flexible, inclusive and attractive learning environments that teachers will teach in and pupils want to learn in. ICT is seen as playing a key role in these new learning environments.

The BSF programme is being co-ordinated by Partnerships for Schools, a non-departmental government body that is working with schools, LEAs and the private sector. BSF is providing pound;2.2bn for capital school investment for 20056. Over half (pound;1.2bn) will be covered by Public Finance Initiative (PFI) credits. Under the BSF scheme, teachers, educational technology companies and educational institutions have been consulted and co-opted to work alongside the building industry to develop designs for the school of the future. The Department for Education an Skills says 514 primary, 160 secondary and 25 special schools were involved in the consultation, along with 250 school governors.

Stephen Cooke, RM's BSF director, who helped set up the recent conference on BSF in Westminster, says: "It's a fantastic opportunity. It gives us the opportunity to have education experts sitting alongside architects and engineers at the start of the discussion process rather than at the end," One of the parties involved in the consultation is Ultralab, the research centre based at Anglia Polytechnic University. Stephen Heppell, Ultralab's departing director, says Ultralab has worked closely with Cabe (Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment) and Riba (Royal Institution of British Architects) to develop a policy for the school of the future. "In 2005, a new school will be built every four days in Britain and we need to ensure that we're building the right kind of environment for teaching and learning in this century." Heppell adds that Ultralab has been consulted by a number of school architects.

One area that has concerned Heppell is the place of ICT in today's school.

"A lot of technology has helped change the rhetoric towards personalised learning, but this doesn't fit well into the existing school structure.

When schools are designed they install the plumbing and lighting as they build it, but ICT literally goes in with the curtains and not when the school is being built. So you have this situation where, for example, you have a screen at one end of the classroom and power sockets at the other, with the result that you have lots of trailing wires in the classroom."

But Partnerships for Schools says that ICT vision is a critical component of an LEA's educational vision and the BSF project expects this to be "appropriate" for the 21st century. Even so, RM's Cooke notes that: "Ninety per cent of the funding is for building and refurbishment and 10 per cent is for ICT, so it's important that ICT doesn't get lost in all of this."

One challenge is that the first schools built under the BSF scheme won't open until around 2007. "The ICT we specify now probably won't be the ICT that schools use when the new schools open, so there's a real opportunity to think about how best to spend our RD money on future products."

So what will the school of the future look like? Stephen Cooke points out that changing pedagogy has resulted in a need for more flexible spaces and more "break-out" social spaces. "In post-key stage 3 there's a need for spaces where students can interact in small groups and also work in a large group in front of an interactive whiteboard. Stephen Heppell sees the traditional school corridor disappearing in many new schools. "Some schools are already dispensing with them because there's a growing realisation that a lot of time is wasted by crowds of kids moving from one place to another.

The type of work that kids will be doing - working with digital video for example - will require longer periods of time than the traditional one-hour lesson. In the school of the future, children will move around school much less."

Heppell also sees the rise of what he describes as the "devolved school".

"The school could spread across the community. You might go to school for one day but then spend the next at your local football club, which is the school's local sports facility." Radical change is on the way for school buildings, but Heppell points out that it will be hard to determine its impact on teaching and learning. How do you know how much learning is leaking out? By the truancy rate? Staff retention? Exam results? How long people stay on the premises? We have to develop ways of answering these questions if we are to be certain that we are building schools that really do improve education."

Building Schools for the Future www.bsf.gov.uk

A research paper on school design produced by Ultralab, Riba and Cabe can be downloaded from http:rubble.ultralab.netcabe

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