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Lessons in mixing cement

Buildings matter, but when creating new secondaries it's what's on the inside that really counts, writes Joe Nutt

By 2008, the Government aims to have invested pound;6.6 billion in the physical reconstruction of new secondary schools. In addition to the burgeoning academies, a handful of English cities will be able to boast of a growing number of 21st-century schools. UK companies are lining up talented architects and designers eager to bring their creative energy to bear on a national problem.

Having spent 20 years in schools that have ranged from the elite to the barbaric, all this feverish activity has caused me to stop and reflect on that experience, and try to work out what a school actually is. One thing everyone fortunate enough to have worked or studied in a good one will recognise: a school is more than just a building. I suspect this is what lies at the heart of the clamour over Unity City academy, Middlesbrough, and Bexley business academy in Thamesmead - both reeling after maulings by Ofsted.

Ask a parent why they send their children to school and the answer is likely to be heavily influenced by their own social background and culture.

While there aren't many Old Etonians who would even contemplate any other school for their children, there are sadly many parents whose only concern is to make sure their kids are being looked after somewhere else for as long as possible, and preferably during the school holidays too. This is why I believe the prime responsibility of any school is to be a place of learning, not a child-minding service.

If a child enters school and leaves it unchanged, then they haven't been to school at all. A successful school changes children. It takes unique individuals, and implants modifications.

Seven years of effective schooling can bring about a complete way of looking at the world, an entire moral, social and cognitive palette from which the child paints for the rest of their lives. It is that astonishing capacity to change which tempts exhausted, weary but good teachers back to work every September and stops them swelling the ranks of insurance salesmen. They know they can - if the context is strong enough to free the cliche from its wussy shackles - "make a difference".

What concerns me most about all new school building activity, and the bewildering sums of money being spent, is that virtually all the effort and emphasis is being put on the physical environment and little, or nothing at all, on understanding and embedding practice common to good schools. It is not just that the thinking isn't there; there is an unshakeable faith among many in the educational community in the power of glass and concrete to transform behaviour, that runs counter to my own experience of what constitutes good schooling.

The UK's urban landscape is already scarred and blighted by poorly thought through school buildings, trumpeted and praised in the Sixties and Seventies. If all you change is the glass and concrete you are bound to fail. Disrespect the school and you disrespect the building. And when that happens, no amount of investment will prevent deterioration and ultimately collapse - something to give all sponsors of academies pause for thought.

Of course, exactly the same applies to the technology and resources you choose to equip the building with. Indeed, in some ways the issue is even more difficult when it comes to technology because we are so often dealing with products and services that do push teaching and learning boundaries and extend the range of what has been possible. That makes it even more important that the educational principles and culture are carefully thought through, agreed and embedded before any costs are incurred.

So how do real schools make a difference? What should all that talent actively involved in the Government's Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme be doing to prevent an unforgivable repeat of recent history, with today's building programme becoming the blight of pupils' and teachers' lives within two or three decades?

Firstly, Partnerships for Schools (PfS), the non-departmental public body created to ensure that investment in secondary schools is based on strong educational visions, needs to be given free rein to lead on this as quickly as possible. PfS could identify individual school leaders and ordinary classroom teachers who do know how to create a genuinely academic climate and ethos and then provide local education authorities and BSF schools with easy, purposeful access to them. In doing so, it can redefine what it is to be a good school and establish learning, and only learning, as the overwhelming priority.

Secondly, all educators involved in the BSF projects should go through a frank and realistic audit of their current practice and ask themselves some searching questions about why schools, in many cases only decades old, are in such a dire state.

I cannot hope here to define all the necessary characteristics of a good school, but I can urge educators to give some serious thought to what they might be, and more significantly, how they could be placed at the centre of contemporary educational innovation.

Of course buildings matter. We need to harness the undoubted capacity of architects and designers to make schools richer places to teach and learn in.

We need to use the best technology and resources on offer to enable pupils to value learning and acquire the knowledge they need for the future. But first we must get the educational core right. A lot more is at stake than just taxpayers' money.

Joe Nutt is a senior educational specialist with RM, and the author of John Donne: the Poems and An Introduction to Shakespeare's Late Plays, both published by Palgrave

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