It's about more than the money

5th May 2006 at 01:00
Stephen Heppell wants designers to cast their nets wide in their plans for real schools forthe future

The Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme is the biggest single government investment in improving school buildings for over 50 years. The aim is to rebuild or renew every secondary school in England over a 10 to 15-year period.

When Labour came to power in 1997 the school capital budget was less than pound;700 million a year. Some schools still had outside toilets. In 2007, that annual budget will be over pound;6bn and a huge part of that is dedicated to Building Schools of the Future.

The aspiration of this enormous investment is ambitious. As the prime minister said early on in the programme: "Students should feel a real sense of pride and worth in their schools and it is right that they exemplify the best in British design."

Following the 2006 budget it is clear that this will equate to pound;1,000 of capital investment, annually, per pupil by 2011. Note the use of the word "investment". Like so many countries, the UK now sees education as just that, rather than as a cost. This is a colossal commitment and it is world-leading in its ambition.

Like so much else in education BSF has a vocabulary of its own, with LEPs (Local Education Partnership) and Waves and OJEUs (Official Journal of the European Union) and more. Those schools and authorities in Wave 1 are now fluent in this language; leading Wave 2 projects are now submitting their outline business cases and coming to grips with it (they begin building in the summer of 2007).

Meanwhile, Wave 3 authorities should be currently working on their education visions and strategies. There might not be uniformity and mass production, but there is certainly a sense of a huge conveyor belt moving forward, but with diversity at the heart of the whole project.

Initially, there was a sense of looking for significant economies of scale.

Indeed, in the very early stages a series of "exemplar designs" were commissioned and there was some thought that these could provide "off-the-shelf" solutions, subject to a bit of tweaking. Mercifully, the personalisation and Every Child Matters agendas have scotched this idea.

OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) research confirmed that diversity rather than direction is best at attaining excellence. The exemplar designs are now described only as "benchmarks ...

to push the boundaries of innovation and inspiration."

What is required is a vision for children on a local level. These must be diverse and interpretation will be fascinating. What has been standardised, however, is the huge amount of paperwork needed to build new schools, and the overarching body, Partnership for Schools, has led the charge to simplify this for everyone. Nevertheless, the private sector is currently estimating the bid cost of trying to be chosen by an LEP at around pound;2m. This is a big game, with high stakes and many losers.

The BSF process starts with building a vision, so some authorities are looking hard at learning across their communities and asking tough questions about where they see their community's future. Knowsley is a leader in building a vision that is world class. It set up a Schools Commission in 2002 and is now reaping the benefits in its planning, if it holds its nerve, as it shuts 11 secondary schools and reopens eight community learning centres.

Among all the complexity of stakeholder feedback, costings and sophisticated organisational plans, the documents include passion: "Now is not the time for Knowsley to stand to one side and watch while new schools appear elsewhere across England. We owe it to the children of Knowsley and the children of Knowsley yet to be born to provide them with the schools that will help them make the best of their opportunities in life." Surely everyone would admire and applaud this? But in Knowsley they are wise enough to be looking around the world for exemplars and their ambition reflects this broader vision.

Looking around the world though, alarm bells start to ring. What we realise is that in the UK a very substantial part of our school renewal investment so far has been too bland and worryingly conservative. The front- running countries and schools worldwide have been far bolder than most of the UK's designs. One reason is that these front runners have realised that just changing the walls and fabric is not enough. They have committed to a root and branch overhaul of everything from timetable and organisation through to relationships with the community.

These "hot" world schools are abandoning subject disciplines in favour of project-based work; they are blurring all their structural "edges" so that mixed age teaching is unexceptional and the school day is stretched far wider; they are turning their backs on large scale and big schools are sub-dividing into small "home bases" with around 150-250 students; they have staff rooms with glass walls, or that are completely open, and are characterised by collegiality and transparency; ICT is ubiquitous and wireless. They see their teaching task as leading and facilitating rather than corralling and delivering.

Their results are breathtaking. In Reece High School, Tasmania an ambitious, community-driven, new build reduced behaviour problems by three quarters. How can we be sure these trends will endure? Because they have proved so effective. Children in them show stellar improvement.

Inevitably these visions can only exist with the involvement of all the educational stakeholders: children, parents, teachers, head-teachers, employers, governors, policy-makers and the community. More needs to be done to illustrate just what might be possible. Few know.

There are some other conspicuous gaps in the provision. Everyone who has had to order school furniture will know how bad it all is: cheap, crippling, noisy, uninspired, dull. No one ever broke into a school to steal furniture. The Design Council ran a "Kit for Purpose" campaign to re-examine school furniture and certainly succeeded in starting the debate.

But it is astonishing that with so much capital expenditure on offer some major players haven't leapt into the fray with imaginative, effective designs.

The pace of change, and the investment, is unprecedented. The tough question, simply, is whether architects, planners, suppliers and "gatekeepers" can learn quickly enough to keep up. So far, the evidence is very mixed and the new Education Select Committee examining all this will have its work cut out sifting the hype and hope from cold reality. On offer is enough funding support for the breathtaking transformation of all our children's opportunities. That's worth a bit of effort isn't it?

Key points

Some useful starting points to think about new school design:

* The official website of Building Schools for the Future (BSF)

* A website providing practical tools, ideas and resources to enable students, teachers and parents to participate in the innovative design of their school www.designmyschool.coml DfES "Classroom of the Future Project": sbschoolsforthefuturefutureclassrooms

* Three world leading schools all showing how imaginative design, in the context of a re-examination of learning processes and organisation, can transform performance:

The Australian School of Maths and Science ASMS

Hellerup Skole in Denmark

Ingunnarskoli, in Reykjavik, Iceland www.designshare.comResearchJilkFreedomIngunnarskoli_OverView.htm

* The School Works A-Z: A sketchbooktoolkit to inspire, challenge and guide you towards building "beautiful and practical schools fit for future learning but also buildings that mirror the hopes and aspirations of the whole community." atoZ.asp

* A compendium of useful staring points on Professor Heppell's own website, including links to most of the above and more: http:rubble.heppell.netplaces Professor Stephen Heppell is head of global learning research and policy consultancy at

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