Editorial: The price of a new building - and the value of it

10th April 2015 at 01:00

Our surroundings can be a matter of great importance. Oscar Wilde's last utterance from his deathbed was said to be "Either that wallpaper goes or I do" - the wallpaper won out.

But former education secretary Michael Gove didn't share Wilde's aesthetic sensibilities. "We won't be getting any award-winning architects to design [new schools]," he told a free-schools conference not long after coming to power, "because no one in this room is here to make architects richer."

He was as good as his word: the speech marked the end of an era. Think back to the halcyon days of New Labour spending on school buildings and they appear to belong to another world. Ennobled "starchitects" designed shiny buildings that often looked more like alien spaceships than schools. Headlines shouted about Business Academy Bexley (by Lord Foster), Mossbourne Community Academy (by Lord Rogers) and Evelyn Grace Academy (by Dame Zaha Hadid).

Many of the wilder design flourishes were plain silly, absurd even. At Bexley, for example, teachers in classrooms without walls were unsurprised to find that getting students to concentrate while another class transitioned past them was rather challenging. The walls soon reappeared.

So when Gove closed the Building Schools for the Future programme in 2010, many teachers shrugged, got on with it - and national results continued to climb.

And this pretty much proved Gove's point: that spending a fortune on new school buildings is not essential. Sure, it's important to make sure the roof isn't leaking, but anything beyond that is an optional extra. The most critical factor in improving results remains the quality of teachers.

So perhaps we shouldn't be too worried by the results of a recent Architects' Journal survey showing that architects aren't happy with the few buildings being completed under the coalition. They believe we're in danger of producing an MFI-style vernacular for the next generation of pupils.

One of those questioned, Clare Wright, partner at Wright and Wright Architects, put it succinctly: "The current schools programme [creates] substandard designs and buildings. The rebuilding and poor morale engendered will cost a fortune."

Notwithstanding the fact that Gove never overly concerned himself with teacher morale, these findings are hardly likely to cause him to shed a tear. Certainly it would be nice to spend lots of money on lovely new buildings, he would surely say, but the Treasury purse simply cannot afford them.

And to some degree he would be right. There is consensus in schools and beyond that if finances are to be squeezed, it's better to maintain core education funding than splash out on expensive architectural adornments.

But we must not lose sight of something significant. Impressive new schools say to students and communities that the powers that be believe in their potential. Better buildings complement the beacon status that many schools have already achieved through tireless hard work and despite under-par premises.

Yet it's also necessary to remember that although buildings can make an important point, when it comes to learning and results, unlike Wilde's final statement they're not a matter of life or death.



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