How cost-cutting is laying foundations for troubled future

10th April 2015 at 01:00
Half of architects say school projects aren't fit for purpose

Major concerns have been raised about the quality of new schools being built, with nearly half the architects questioned on the subject stating that their last project was not fit for purpose.

A survey of architects and designers working on the Priority School Building Programme (PSBP) reveals that nine out of 10 respondents were worried about standards under the initiative. More than two-thirds said they were regularly asked to break building regulations relating to the amount of outdoor space available to pupils.

The PSBP was introduced in 2011 by the coalition government as a replacement for the previous Labour government's pound;55 billion Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme, which was scrapped in a bid to save costs.

But a poll of 230 architects taking part in the new scheme paints a worrying picture of the quality of schools being completed, with nearly half claiming the initiative is not conducive to producing suitable buildings.

Nearly one in five respondents did not believe that the buildings they had designed would last 20 years. One firm of architects predicted that the poor-quality buildings would mean schools faced even greater costs further down the line.

Speaking to the Architects' Journal, which carried out the survey, Claire Wright, a partner at Wright and Wright Architects, said: "The current schools programme [creates] substandard designs and buildings. The rebuilding and poor morale engendered will cost a fortune."

Her comments echo those made by Andrew Seager, headteacher of Stratford School Academy in London. He told the Commons Education Select Committee last month that he anticipated being forced to spend more money to patch up his new building in the near future.

Brick by brick

The PSBP suffered a shaky start when it was brought in to replace BSF by then-education secretary Michael Gove. As one of his first acts in power in 2010, Mr Gove made the controversial decision to scrap BSF halfway through the programme, leaving hundreds of schools unsure about whether they would have their buildings rebuilt and refurbished.

Mr Gove also came under fire in 2012 over the design guidelines produced for the programme, which banned curved, glazed and folding walls in school designs in a further effort to cut costs.

The design templates also stipulated that schools should be approximately 15 per cent smaller than those built under BSF. This sparked a backlash from some of the country's most respected architects, such as Lord Rogers, who called on the government to rethink the guidelines.

The PSBP then suffered delays in 2013 after the government struggled to find private cash to fund the five-year scheme.

The first phase of the programme is expected to rebuild and refurbish 261 schools, and in February a further 277 were confirmed to be in line to benefit from the project.

David Simmonds, chair of the Local Government Association's children and young people board, said it was right to stop BSF but its replacement had gone too far in cutting costs.

He said: "It is stripped down too much in my view. It's fine to have standardised designs, but the problem is that we don't have standardised sites on which to put schools. A lot of projects have been hit by delays because of problems around access and transport to the sites."

The Conservative councillor added that the difference in costs per school between BSF and the PSBP was not as great as the government had suggested.

"A lot of the costs, such as demolition, removal of asbestos, fencing and landscaping are not included with the PSBP, meaning that the school or local authority has to find the money themselves," he said.

`We face significant costs down the line'

Andrew Seager, headteacher of Stratford School Academy in London, told the Education Select Committee that the quality of the finish at his school would lead to further bills.

"We were one of the BSF schools where the school wasn't built," Mr Seager said. "As far as I can work out, the amount of money that would have been spent on the BSF project would have been considerably more than what is being spent on the current building."

Mr Seager acknowledged that in terms of the layout and designs "it seems to be entirely fit for purpose".

But he added: "The real difficulties we've had are with the running of the project and the quality of the finishes, which really are going to leave us with some significant costs further down the line."

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