Show them what they're made of

18th January 2008 at 00:00
I can recall the moment when public bodies stopped looking after their buildings. It was in the wake of the economic crisis in July 1976, when the British government bowed to the demands of the International Monetary Fund to make immediate and drastic reductions in public expenditure - mostly by cutting maintenance on buildings.

Had the crisis been short-lived, this would not have been a bad strategy. But putting money back into something unglamorous like maintenance didn't seem to be a priority, even after the worst of the financial crisis was over. More than 20 years were to pass before action was taken and, in the meantime, many schools had become slums.

Despite the huge - and welcome - investment that has been made since the 1990s, I cannot suppress the thought that a great opportunity is being squandered. There are two main reasons for this.

The first has to do with showing the value that is attached to young people and their learning. The new buildings are cleaner, brighter and in better condition. But they do not stand comparison with hotels, shopping malls or even offices. The designs are more constrained by cost. The materials and finishes are cheaper. They are, simply, built to a standard deemed good enough for kids.

This is deeply counter-productive. We are - or should be - in the business of motivating people to be lifelong learners. Success depends on persuading them that learning is rewarding, frequently enjoyable and highly esteemed. If the building gives off a different message, it will be a needlessly uphill struggle.

The second reason my enthusiasm for our new schools is muted is that too little has been done to make them "futureproof". One of the criticisms often made of the PPP approach to funding is that councils are locked into contracts for 30 years. The same applies to any major capital project, however it is financed. Nobody invests, say, pound;25 million in a new secondary school believing that conditions may change so quickly that it will be obsolete in a decade or so.

I am not convinced that it is realistic to try to predict what education may be like in 2037. We may well need to treat school buildings as more dispensable than we imagined. But these are not reasons for neglecting to anticipate change and trying to meet its needs so far as is possible. This is perhaps most problematic in the secondary sector.

A Curriculum for Excellence does not make any explicit demands for changes in school design, but it does offer pointers. "Personalisation" points us in the direction of more customised learning and, certainly, towards groups of shifting size. "Depth" seems to require individual and collaborative study in areas designed for the purpose. Developing "responsible citizens" and "effective contributors" may often be better done outwith school premises, thus reducing accommodation needs in school but creating new requirements in the community.

It is a comforting thought that many years will pass before the building programme is complete. Maybe teachers in schools of the 2020s will reflect on how much has been learnt since those first new ones went up.

Keir Bloomer is the former chief executive and director of education in Clackmannanshire.

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