Make do, don't mend

2nd December 2011 at 00:00
With Building Schools for the Future cancelled and renovations on hold, the issue of what to do with decaying classrooms remains. But does dilapidation really affect performance? Richard Vaughan reports

"Up there," says Elizabeth Logan, head of Cottingham High School in Yorkshire, pointing to a part of the school building enmeshed in scaffolding, "is where the roof fell down. Had it happened on a school day, a pupil would have easily been maimed or worse ... And this is one of the better buildings."

Mrs Logan smiles at the absurdity of her statement. Due to years of neglect, the school she took over a little less than 18 months ago is quite literally crumbling around her ears. It is in an astonishingly dire state.

Around every corner at Cottingham High is a new nightmare: buckets in the canteen collecting the rain, holes in the ceiling, asbestos throughout the fabric so nothing can be modified and every room either insufferably hot or unbearably cold.

Despite the sorry state of the school, only the collapsed roof is being repaired, at a cost of #163;480,000. In fact, until a full survey of the school estate by the Department for Education has taken place, Cottingham High - like hundreds of other schools across the country - will just have to make do and mend in a situation in which make do and mend really is not enough.

Under the previous Labour administration, school buildings were placed at the centre of the debate over school standards. But since the appointment of Michael Gove, there has been a seismic shift in emphasis.

One of his first acts as education secretary was to cancel the vast school rebuilding programme, Building Schools for the Future (BSF), sparking national outrage and crushing the hopes of hundreds of schools.

Mr Gove saw BSF as inherently wasteful. And he had a point. From its inception in 2003, BSF funding totalled #163;8.65 billion. As of March 2011, just over 300 schools had benefited from BSF investment and a further 694 will be rebuilt or refurbished by 201415.

But while it was hardly fast-paced building, Mr Gove focused most of his anger on the amount of money he felt was "wasted" on consultants, particularly architects' fees.

At a free-school conference earlier this year, Mr Gove told his audience that "we won't be getting any award-winning architects" to design new schools, "because no one in this room is here to make architects richer". The statement showed a clear shift in priorities from the Labour years. Mr Gove's message was clear: only teachers really matter.

The change in tack has coincided with swingeing cuts to the DfE's capital budgets, which are 60 per cent down on 2010 levels - far greater cuts than those suffered by other Government departments. The stark funding situation has led ministers to question just how much difference a new building actually makes to a school's performance. After all, a good teacher should be inspirational even in a portable classroom.

For Mrs Logan and her shabby huddle of buildings on the border of East Riding and Hull, such words will offer little solace, particularly to her staff.

But despite the school's near-unworkable conditions, 55 per cent of Cottingham High's pupils this year achieved five good GCSEs including English and maths, and 18 per cent secured an English Baccalaureate. The school wants to see 34 per cent of pupils take the EBac suite of subjects next year, while 87 per cent of its sixth-form students left this year with A* to C grades.

"It is only because of my highly motivated staff and my students that we achieve these results," Mrs Logan says. "We're not asking for a #163;35 million building, but if we had better buildings our results would be even better."

But such logic is now being questioned. If Cottingham High, and the hundreds of others like it, had better buildings, would their results improve?

Not according to Dylan Wiliam, emeritus professor at London University's Institute of Education. When asked how much impact a building can have on a pupil's exam results, his answer was to the point.

"Almost none," he says frankly. "Obviously kids need to be in buildings that are warm and dry, but in a report produced by the National Federation for Educational Research, it showed schools that had benefited from a new building actually saw their results go down.

"It could have been because they were spending so much time designing the building they took their eye off the ball."

The most important areas to get right when it comes to school buildings, Professor Wiliam says, are good lighting and - above all - good acoustics, as many children have difficulty hearing their teachers.

"These things are not very expensive, but the kind of money they were spending in BSF was not value for money. I would say school building is the least important aspect in improving standards in attainment," he says.

The report cited by Professor Wiliam could not be clearer - or more controversial. "In all cases, our models showed that pupils at BSF schools make, on average, less progress than would be expected based on their intake and past performance," it says. "These results show that even taking into account background characteristics, pupils at BSF schools attain a total GCSE points score on average 11 points lower than pupils at non-BSF schools, equivalent to almost two grades lower."

Indeed, according to Professor Wiliam, the very best teachers - the top 5 per cent of the profession - would be able to achieve the same results whether they were teaching in a class with a leaking roof or not. "Once you have a warm, dry box, what matters is what goes on inside them," he says.

Such comments are unlikely to win the academic many friends. While most headteachers and their staff would agree that it is what happens in the classroom that counts, many believe having a sparkling new building will go some way to boosting their results.

This belief was certainly held by the Labour government and its academy programme, which Mr Gove is so keen on. Initially procured outside BSF, academies attempted to deliver shock and awe with their buildings.

They were created not only to boost educational standards in the country's most deprived neighbourhoods, but also to function as beacons of investment in the poorest communities.

Academies acted as a precursor to BSF and its mission to effect "educational transformation" by turning schools into community hubs, which would then become a catalyst for regenerating an entire area.

But they were not cheap. Evelyn Grace Academy in south London was built for the princely sum of #163;35 million and was even designed by one of the world's most famous architects, Zaha Hadid. It was crowned the best building designed in Europe this year when it won the Stirling Prize, architecture's answer to the Man Booker Prize.

Many within the design world suggested that the decision to pick Evelyn Grace was politically motivated - that it was a two-fingered salute to Mr Gove for his repeated claims that architects designing schools represented a waste of taxpayers' money. If it is true, then it is a Pyrrhic victory. If the involvement of architects in school buildings results in #163;35 million price tags, it is unlikely Mr Gove will be picking up his Yellow Pages any time soon.

But the real question is whether a building like Evelyn Grace, with its shifting, zigzagging lines and stylish exposed concrete, can boost standards among its inhabitants.

Principal Peter Walker believes it can. Furthermore, he says, beneath the academy's sleek, shiny exterior is a traditional school. "I think a building can improve results and certainly our attendance is very good," the head says, from an office any fat-cat businessman would be proud of.

"Obviously, the school is all about the quality of the teaching, but the good thing about this school is it's very functional in terms of classrooms and class sizes.

"It's an amazing building - in some aspects it's quite traditional and that is very important. There is a spine with classrooms coming off it, which provide the simple four walls needed, and there is no doubt they are conducive to teaching and learning."

Mr Walker says a building like Evelyn Grace can have a profound effect on its pupils' aspirations. "If you speak to the students, they think the building is an investment in them and the power of such a motivational factor cannot be underestimated, especially considering the challenging neighbourhood this school is located in," he says.

Challenging indeed. Tucked away in one of Brixton's more depressing corners, the low-lying academy creeps out amid row upon row of ill-conceived, 1960s council estates.

How much of an impact the building has on the academy's achievements will not be known until 2013 when its first cohort sits their GCSEs. But it is worth bearing in mind that Mossbourne Community Academy in Hackney, east London, a school continuously held up by Mr Gove as the gold standard in state education, was designed by "starchitect" Richard Rogers.

Regardless, the days of spending #163;30 million or more on a school are long gone. And while BSF was laudable in its aims to "rebuild or refurbish every secondary school in the country", whether such an aim was necessary is questionable.

Hundreds of schools - like Cottingham High - still await rebuilding. Having axed BSF, Mr Gove now has the headache of how to finance any future rebuilding projects in spite of 60 per cent cuts to his capital budget, while at the same time funding new schools promised to parents, teachers and academy chains who want to open free schools. However, the Treasury did promise an extra #163;600 million for free schools earlier this week.

In order to get things moving, Mr Gove could resort to standardised designs: a menu of design templates that would provide the warm, dry boxes that schools need, while keeping costs to a minimum. But Nusrat Faizullah, chief executive of the British Council for School Environments, a charity concerned with improving design in school building, says the difficult financial times the country finds itself in should lead to more innovation, not less.

"I'm not sure we fully understand what fit for purpose is. What is the minimum standard?" she says. "We need to do more research to understand the link between the learning environment, attainment and all other factors."

As a former teacher, Ms Faizullah says there is little doubt that a building can have an enormous impact on the outcomes of its pupils. "My school buildings were those in which a lot of my young pupils didn't feel safe, they didn't want to go to the toilets, and they encouraged the wrong sort of behaviour," she says. "It really inhibited my teaching and the amount I could engage my students."

Nevertheless, a new type of building project is being piloted outside Doncaster that aims to significantly slash building costs and could prove a model for the future.

Campsmount Technology College, a 20-minute drive north of Doncaster, is situated amid the rolling fields of South Yorkshire. Or, at least, it used to be.

The original school burnt down just before Christmas 2009, after an electrical fault set fire to the 1960s, wooden-framed building. Headteacher Andrew Sprakes took the call in the small hours of Sunday morning and arrived at the scene only to see his school engulfed in flames.

Just a scruffy flat-roofed building and the school's sports hall were left standing. The blaze meant the school had to function out of youth centres and community buildings until temporary accommodation could be procured. For the past 18 months, the school has been operating out of scores of portable buildings. The sight of row after row of stacked cabins gives it the air of an army barracks.

What passes as a playground is split by a line of back-to-back portable toilets, known by staff and pupils alike as "Portaloo Road". But despite the impracticality of the temporary facilities, the school's standards have not slipped. In fact, while operating out of its portable home it was visited by Ofsted, which described it as a "good" school.

Nor did Campsmount's results suffer, with 96 per cent of the pupils achieving five A* -C grades at GCSE this year. The school's remarkable performance appears to lend credence to the argument that buildings do not matter. After all, it is difficult to get anything more like a box than a portable building.

Mr Sprakes, however, is eager to pour cold water on any suggestion that schools should operate out of anything less than a building fit for teaching in the 21st century. "I am very much of the school of thought that teachers are the most important things," he says. "You could have a school in a luxury hotel, but if the teacher is rubbish you won't get great outcomes.

"But operating out of this building has been extremely difficult to manage," he adds. His struggle is more than understandable. Every footstep reverberates through the flimsy plastic walls, and every door is spring-loaded, meaning they snap shut loudly.

On the site of the old school, a new building is coming out of the ground. Designed and built by Wates Construction, it will cost 40 per cent less than the average BSF school.

From awarding the contract to starting on site, the new Campsmount school will be ready for use in just one year. The speed of the build and the dramatically reduced cost is giving ministers real food for thought.

But at around #163;12 million (and that is without the expense of demolishing the old school and clearing the site), Campsmount still has not offered the Government all the answers. Schools simply do not come cheap.

Mr Sprakes has worked closely with Wates Construction and he believes it is important to provide pupils with the best possible facilities within the means available. "I don't subscribe to the view that a building doesn't matter," he says. "Buildings do make a difference. And the climate for learning needs to be one where we show our students they are valued."

And it is this dilemma that Mr Gove must resolve. His focus on improving the quality of teaching is undeniably right - many even agreed with the scrapping of BSF. But without a proper alternative and with a desperate capital settlement, the education secretary is in danger of neglecting the growing issue of the decaying school estate.

Good teachers should and do achieve good results regardless of the condition of the school they find themselves in. But is it morally right to make staff and pupils suffer in buildings that are, in many cases, literally falling down? That question is one for Mr Gove.


#163;0.6bn - Capital spend in 199697

#163;7.6bn - Capital spend in 201011

#163;55bn - Overall cost of Building Schools for the Future

310 - Schools that have benefited from BSF cash.

694 - Schools to be rebuilt or refurbished under BSF by 201415


One of the biggest building pressures facing Michael Gove is in primary schools.

Last month, the education secretary made #163;500 million of additional funding available in an attempt to ease the pressure on places in the primary sector.

It will be added to the #163;800 million already made available for 201112, which will be given to local authorities to help them provide enough places.

Mr Gove is aware that the issue of primary school places is more severe than was first thought. By 2020, there is expected to be around 21 per cent more primary school pupils than in 2010.

London is facing the greatest pressure. More than 70,000 additional primary school places will be needed in the capital by 201415.

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