After a shaky start, the Government's pound;40bn school renewal project is finally creating new buildings, writes David Marley
Visitors to the new Bristol Brunel Academy are greeted at the entrance by a pupils' wishing wall. Their future hopes range from the commendable "I wish I had a cure for every disease" to the bizarre, "I wish I was made of Lego".
As Gordon Brown cut the ceremonial ribbon there this month, he must have been hoping that the Government's ambitious plan to renew every secondary in the country is now on track.
Building Schools for the Future was launched in 2003 with the grand promise to rebuild or refurbish the UK's 3,500 secondaries within 15 years. The first 100 were supposed to be finished by the end of this year. In fact, Bristol Brunel Academy will be the only one.
The biggest school building programme in more than 50 years is expected to cost at least pound;40 billion.
Yet, despite the investment, it has suffered severe delays and criticism. Government officials have admitted that local authorities may not have the expertise to cope. And the Commons education committee said the use of the private finance initiative could leave councils paying huge bills for empty schools.
But Partnerships for Schools, responsible for the programme, says it has turned the corner. Tim Byles, the chief executive, says 12 schools will be finished by March, followed by 60 the next year and 200 a year from 2009-10 onwards.
"It is important we do it well and not just quickly," he said. "The key objective is to transform the life chances of young people."
Mr Byles, who was brought in after early waves of the programme had fallen behind, will launch a consultation next month with architects, designers and construction firms to ensure the deal-making process for new schools quicker and more cost effective. It could even lead to the partnerships between local authorities and business starting to build new schools by working together on housing and wider regeneration projects.
Tougher environmental standards for schools are expected to be announced by the Government this year. Since the schools rebuilding programme began, the green agenda has become more prominent and school design has not always kept pace.
Mr Byles says problems with PFI, which will fund around half the new schools, have been solved. "This is a new world where the previous issues have been designed out," he said. "I have been critical of PFI in the past for being inflexible. But companies... have a strong commercial incentive to make schools work."
As more local authorities get involved, heads will be called on to devote time to it, too. Heads who have been through similar building projects say it is important to engage teachers, pupils and the wider community in the design process.
Andy Buck, head of Jo Richardson school in Barking in east London, oversaw the rebuilding of his school and is now a consultant to nearby Eastbrook school, which is being rebuilt.
"You need to build up a clear vision for the school," he said. "Pupils will want certain things that can be included in the design. Teachers know that the school has to be designed flexibly and you need their expertise. The one certainty is that teaching is not going to stay the same in future, and the building needs to be adaptable."
Mr Buck said it was impossible to take on the rebuilding programme on top of a head's job. The role needs to go to an executive head who is not responsible for the day-to-day details of running a school, or delegated to a deputy who is relieved of most other duties, he said.
The National College for School Leadership is now running training sessions with schools and local authorities to help them better understand what is involved. Schools and councils both have to draw up detailed strategies for how they want the building programme to transform the education they provide.
Hannah Jones, who is in charge of the scheme, said the workload for heads can be daunting. In one example, a head had 22 BSF-related meetings in two weeks.
Mr Byles believes each local authority should give a full-time job to a head or deputy to co-ordinate all the BSF projects in their area. A system is also being put in place to share the experiences of schools in the early waves of the programme so that those coming through can learn from their mistakes, he said.
A new design centre was opened by the Sorrell Foundation in Somerset House, London, this term to give pupils a more structured way to offer ideas on design. And school design assessment panels are being run by Cabe the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment to help local authorities get the 21st-century schools they have been promised.
But Ty Goddard, the director of the British Council for School Environments, says the system does not play to heads' strengths nor does it allow enough time for proper consultation on getting the right design.
He says the method of procurement is wasting millions of pounds because three separate bids have to be prepared for each school. He is working with the Royal Institute of British Architects on proposals to change the system, but says a new school can transform behaviour and pupil attainment.
"At last, BSF is going from a mirage to reality," said Mr Goddard. "The lesson we have learned is that preparation is absolutely key. Teachers should visit other schools and buildings. Be a magpie don't be afraid to take different ideas.
"If the biggest thing you have designed in the past is your new kitchen, teachers might have a sense of trepidation about getting involved. But good design can work wonders for your school."
IF YOUR SCHOOL IS ABOUT TO BE REBUILT...
* Consult widely with pupils, teachers, parents and the local community on what they want from their new school. Work closely with designers and architects to get the right school for you.
* Visit as many new schools and public buildings as you can to help arrive at a "vision" for the new place.
* Do not try to do it all yourself. Delegate responsibility for Building Schools for the Future to a deputy, relieving himher of other duties.
* Consider making use of training schemes being run by the National College for School Leadership. These give detailed explanations about how the process works.
A FRESH START IN AN OLD SCHOOL
The long and wide corridors of the new Bristol Brunel Academy are almost spookily quiet for a secondary of more than 900 pupils. David Carter (above), the school's executive head, says there has been a "remarkable transformation" in behaviour since pupils transferred from the old buildings of Speedwell Technology College to the pound;24 million academy.
"There is a wow factor here which has lifted the morale of pupils and teachers," he said. "We would not have been able to create that feeling of a fresh start in an old school. But in six months' time people will be used to it. The building is an important start, but we have to make sure what happens in the classroom is better too."
Only 22 per cent of Speedwell pupils achieved five GCSE grades A-C including English and maths this year.
Being an executive principal has allowed Mr Carter time to get involved in the design and building process that would not be available to a regular head. "You have to involve students and staff in the process so they have a vested interest and are aware that any disruption has a purpose," he said.
Pupil concerns about potential bullying spots have led to unisex toilets with washrooms leading straight off corridors without any doors.
However, Mr Carter is adamant that headteachers cannot do it all. "Their chief responsibility is to ensure high-quality teaching and learning," he said. "If you need to delegate BSF to a deputy, then make it their full-time job."
Photographs: Christopher Jones