Fit for our purpose

25th November 2005 at 00:00
Local communities should be involved when schools get their expensive facelifts over the next 15 years, writes Ty Goddard.

With the Government about to begin a fresh wave of radical reforms, it is easy to forget there are other pressing issues affecting state schools. Yet few of the people who actually work in them - pupils and teachers - would disagree that the state of school buildings has been badly neglected.

Despite some welcome investment in recent years, for far too long we've been stuck in a "make do and mend" mentality.

The enormous and ambitious Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme introduced by the Government is, at last, beginning to change all that.

Along with other capital funding streams, this programme - partly funded by private finance - is at the centre of the Government's commitment to rebuild or refurbish every secondary school in England over the next 15 years. A similar commitment has been made to the primary sector, and the academies programme envisages more than 200 new schools. The BSF programme presents an opportunity that needs to be seized, but we must make sure that we grasp the right solutions and use this investment wisely.

We now know that, properly planned and constructed, new buildings can have a powerful effect on educational outcomes. The built environment can, and does, influence pupil attainment, teacher performance and school community relations. So it follows that we now have a chance to develop schools which stimulate learning.

In the extended school era, against the backdrop of the Every Child Matters agenda, which aims to help every child to achieve, our newly-built and refurbished schools have to meet a very wide range of needs. The days of a headteacher or a local education authority officer simply commissioning an architect should be over. We need to design with, rather than for, people.

The way to do this is to ensure that pupils, school staff, parents and members of local communities are involved in the design and building process.

There are important gains to be made, too - being involved in design and building of a new school can stimulate children's learning and development.

We've already seen some attempts to ensure participation in building projects, not least in the Bristol and Bradford BSF bids, both announced this week .

The anxiety is that, as we see streams of money pouring into school buildings, LEAs and construction companies will see participation as a luxury rather than a requirement in a process which can be both confusing and exhausting. Yet there is a business case - and it is really quite simple. Would you, as a private individual, employ an architect without a requirement that you be involved in the important design decisions?

Children and staff are no different - they are the clients in all this, and should be consulted and involved in the development of the building they are going to be learning, living and teaching in. Successful transformation is owned not imposed. Mistakes are being made. The PriceWaterhouseCoopers evaluation report into academies, published earlier this year, points out that some of the new buildings failed to provide "modern working and learning spaces". We mustn't squander the BSF programme by building new schools designed according to outdated requirements, and which can't respond to community needs or the fierce pace of technology. Current and future generations of communities are depending on BSF to deliver vibrant and functional buildings that bring something extra to where they live.

Schools may be the only public assets in an area.

Next week School Works, the design advisory body I work for, publishes From the Inside Out, which showcases a number of multi-functional and beautiful early-years centres. The common thread between them all is the participation of children, parents and community members at the heart of the design process. There is good practice out there, and we need to see more of it. We should be bringing together schools, local authorities, architects and others in the construction supply chain so we can share good practice and learn from the mistakes that will inevitably be made. The BSF programme is a fantastic opportunity to invest in our children's future, but the bidding process can be both complicated and challenging, taking up time and resources. Because of this, there is a danger that real school community participation will slip through the gaps and we will end up with schools that aren't fit for the required purpose or future needs.

It is time for the Government to place mandatory participation firmly in the DNA of the school design and build programme, in the same way it does for a range of other initiatives, from regeneration projects to social care programmes. Involving people in design and build projects makes educational and financial sense, and we can't afford to leave the future of our schools to chance.

Ty Goddard is managing director of the school design advisory body School Works.

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