Building a solid case for better premises

22nd July 2016 at 00:00
Experts say leaders have to do more to lobby against the current state of schools

The UK’s schools are in a sorry state of disrepair. Too many school buildings are dangerous, dilapidated and poorly built, according to a damning report, Better Places for Learning, published in May by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). The report argued that in addition to existing schools not being fit for purpose, the government’s Education Funding Agency’s (EFA) school building programme was “wasteful”.

How times have changed. Ten years ago, thanks to the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme launched by the Labour government, the UK was seen as a global leader in school design. Now we’re trailing behind the rest of the world, architects say. The emphasis has switched, they argue, from building environments that encourage learning back to building a series of identikit boxes within a bigger box as cheaply and quickly as possible.

This is despite the fact that more than 90 per cent of school teachers believe that well-built and designed schools “improve educational outcomes and pupil behavior”. So where did it all go wrong for UK school design and what do we need to do – and what do school leaders need to lobby for – to get back on track?

A little bit of history repeated

The current situation the UK finds itself in isn’t new. Indeed, there is a distinct feeling of deja vu about it, as Dr Sharon Wright, senior associate at consultants the-learning-crowd, details in the book Future Schools: innovative design for existing and new buildings, which she co-authored with Nick Mirchandani.

“The past 100 years tell us that school design in England has often lagged behind social and educational developments, running to keep pace with change and ultimately leaving buildings that are no longer fit for the curriculum they are asked to deliver,” she wrote.

But at the start of the new millennium, the government recognised the existing school estate was expensive to maintain and unsuitable for modern use. So, in 2005 it launched the BSF programme, hailed as the “largest single investment programme in 50 years”, which had the ambitious remit to “rebuild and renew” virtually all of England’s 3,500 secondary schools.

“It is a programme that will transform our existing schools into world-class learning environments that will enable generations of young people to reach their full potential,” the government declared.

The introduction of the BSF programme radically shook things up. It was seen as being innovative and ahead of its time.

However, the programme had a chequered start. Local authorities were suddenly flush with cash and there is broad agreement now that money was squandered in those early days through mismanagement, as a result of a lack of expertise in projects of this kind. Heavy criticisms have also arisen since about the financial deals that facilitated the buildings – the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) contracts used to fund many builds have been unpopular with a number of schools (see box, page 36).

Despite the negative factors, most education and design experts agree that it was at least a step in the right direction – and those early issues with procurement expertise were soon remedied in most cases. The new regime delivered a number of new school builds in addition to a raft of rebuilds. But when the coalition government came into power in 2010, BSF was mothballed, with the education secretary Michael Gove saying that more than 700 school revamps that had already signed up to the programme would not go ahead.

Gove’s decision was a massive blow, according to Rosan Bosch, from the Copenhagen-based architecture practice Rosan Bosch Studio, which has worked on a number of innovative school design projects around the globe.

“The BSF programme was quite ambitious and a lot of people got involved in it,” says Bosch. “The UK was actually well on its way to being ahead of the rest of the world. If the programme hadn’t been stopped, then right now, the UK would be an example globally about how you should approach school design.”

The change in attitude towards school building projects changed overnight. Whereas under BSF, the focus was on creating well-designed school environments promoting learning, the emphasis of later programmes shifted towards a model purely driven by cost, according to those involved.

As one source who was part of the BSF programme puts it: “Suddenly everything was framed around what Michael Gove’s grammar school looked like and how could this be delivered as cheaply as possible. Now they simply parcel up schools, cutting across borough boundaries, and they put them out to tender, so that building contractors can bid on them and build them en masse. This process means that the borough and the school are seen as an impediment to that process and so, of course, inevitably, are the school children.”

Going backwards

Design values have suffered from the growing pressure to save costs, says Mark Rowe, an architect and partner at Penoyre & Prasad, the firm that led the design of the UCL Academy, which formally opened in 2013.

“The sad truth of the past six years is that when it comes to school design now we just stack up classrooms and it’s gone backwards,” says Rowe. “The edict from upon high is to build conventional classrooms and smaller classrooms that are inherently inflexible. You can put 30 desks in rows in these classrooms and have the teacher at the front, but the five square metres of space that you’ve lost is the bit that’s stopped you from playing around with the organisation of that space.”

While the aesthetics of school design have suffered in the wake of the closure of BSF, there has also been a heavy financial blow dealt to the school rebuilding programme; the government’s school capital funding reduced by 60 per cent over the spending review period to 2014/15, according to Emiia Plotka, a RIBA policy adviser who authored the Better Places for Learning report.

“When BSF was cancelled, many schools found themselves having to spend large sums on bringing dilapidated buildings that had been scheduled for demolition back into use,” says Plotka. “By the time a replacement initiative – the Priority School Building Programme (PSBP) – for improving school buildings in the very worst condition was announced in 2011, it attracted almost three times as many applications as it could afford to build.”

Damp, leaky and poor value

The government recognises it has a problem. It’s already admitted that only 5 per cent of the nearly 60,000 school buildings in the UK are performing as intended and operating efficiently. Many buildings are riddled with asbestos and many classrooms are damp and leaky. That’s why it introduced the PSBP in 2011.

However, experts argue there are numerous problems with this programme, of which the most damning criticism was contained in RIBA’s recent report. The institute reached its conclusions following two years of conversations with a broad range of stakeholders who were involved in EFA-funded projects. They found that the system itself was too rigid and, as a result, it was leading to waste and poor value for taxpayers.

“Our sources have indicated that many EFA-funded schools are overengineered with elements – mechanical and electrical, building management systems – which are either unnecessary or could have been replaced with cheaper, more environmentally and user-friendly technologies,” says Plotka.

She adds that these systems can cost up to 40 per cent of a project’s total budget and can “often prove expensive and difficult to run in the long term”.

Conversely, the RIBA report claims that good school design should in fact help to reduce running and maintenance costs and could have prevented the English school estate from “spending upwards of £150m annually on unnecessary operation and maintenance costs”.

That’s not to say that people are being deliberately wasteful. Wright says that there are a number of architects and contractors out there who are doing their absolute utmost to provide good schools within current funding budgets.

“Nobody wants to build a bad school – that’s never the intention and we’re really trying hard to make this work, but it’s a real shame that budgets are being cut to a point where you’re providing schools that are utilitarian,” says Wright. “It is a waste to build a new school that is not as good as it could possibly be. For the sake of a little bit of extra funding, thought, vision and creativity, you could have something amazing. To miss that opportunity is just heartbreaking.”

Reversing the decline

So what needs to happen to reverse the downward spiral that UK school design appears to have fallen into? More money would be a good starting point. Plotka says that RIBA is particularly concerned about the lack of funding to address the growing school building problem and also about the poor value for money the existing regime is delivering.

“This is why our report calls for a full review of how new or refurbished primary and secondary schools are both built and delivered,” she explains.

But money isn’t the answer to everything, according to Wright. “For me it isn’t about the cost. This shouldn’t be driven by the money. What we need to do is have a conversation about the kind of spaces that schools need to deliver the curriculum.”

This is where heads can make a real difference. They need to be intricately involved in discussions about school buildings as they understand best what is needed.

There are a number of examples of welldesigned, recently built schools out there that can help to inform this conversation, from Burntwood School in Wandsworth, which last year won the RIBA Stirling Prize, to recent TES secondary school of the year winner Stanley Park High in Surrey (see box, above left), which has seen the performance of its pupils improve considerably since the new school building opened in 2012. Headteacher David Taylor was involved in the process from the very start.

Stanley Park’s example shows that school design can have an impact on learning rates. It’s a belief reinforced by RIBA’s own research.

“Good school design has a positive impact on educational outcomes and can contribute to a significant uplift in academic progression in primary and secondary schools,” says Plotka. “Research that we commissioned found a number of examples of how good design can positively impact on both pupil attainment and their behaviour.”

And it’s not just a school’s pupils that can be positively – or indeed negatively – affected by the buildings that they inhabit during the daytime. RIBA found that because of the “wretched condition” of the buildings they teach in, one in five teachers had considered quitting their job.

That’s why experts like Dominic Cullinan, director of Scabal architects, who has worked on a number of innovative school designs across the UK, believes that school building is an area where the government simply can’t afford to cut costs.

“Why would you save money building schools?” says Cullinan. “It sounds to me like you’re shooting yourself in the foot. Often the argument is made – certainly by Gove and his successors – that what you spend on the school should be spent on the teachers, but it’s a false dichotomy. You wouldn’t get a great school without great teachers and, equally, you wouldn’t get a great school without a great environment.”

It’s a view shared by Bosch, who believes that we have to go back to the drawing board in terms of the approach that is taken to the design of schools.

“We have to wipe the slate clean and say ‘how do our children learn best?’” says Bosch. “If society doesn’t want to spend money on schools then that says something about whether or not we think this is a priority.”

At the moment, the problem is that the government’s priority appears to be the building of the school rather than the school as a building. Until that priority changes, we will be stuck with a growing problem.

Simon Creasey is a freelance writer @simoncreasey2

PFI problems

While Private Finance Initiative (PFI) deals meant that many schools were able to be built under the Building Schools for the Future programme, the financial terms of repaying the money and maintenance contracts have proved to be a long-term headache for some heads.

“PFI requires the contractors to own and look after buildings for 30 years,” explains Dominic Cullinan (pictured), director of Scabal architects, who has worked on a number of school designs across the UK. “It is a funding system invented to buy now and pay later and, like all never-never schemes, it turns out to be incredibly expensive.”

A headteacher (who wishes to remain anonymous) in a building financed through PFI says that her school needed the cash, but added the terms of the contract have proven to be debilitating.

“Before our school was rebuilt, windows were without glass, doors didn’t shut and staff took their lives in their hands brushing damp greenery out of the way to turn on the lights. The building was a disgrace. Consequently, pupils did not value the school, the education they received there or themselves.

“Our new school is amazing – but a company is making a lot of money from this arrangement at a time when I am facing extensive funding cuts and having to reduce staffing and services. I am held hostage by a monopoly that knows it can charge me whatever it wants – usually four times the cost I’d be paying if I could commission the work myself.”

And the school – eight years old – is not without its problems. The heating has never worked properly (they’re looking into it), the roof still leaks in many places (they’re looking into it), and some of the toilets flood (they’re looking into it).

“I’m pretty toothless to challenge it, the LA hold the contract not us, and the personnel at head office seems to change monthly. It is frustrating to try and work with people for whom the priority is profit, not children.”

Cullinan confirms this is a common experience. “The school can feel alienated from their buildings, which they don’t own, can’t easily get fixed and can’t fully use as they wish.”

Case Study: Stanley Park

At the turn of the new millennium, Stanley Park School in Surrey was in a sorry state. The school’s original 1930s buildings weren’t considered up to scratch for modern occupancy – they were invariably cold in the winter and hot in the summer. The school’s performance suffered as a result.

Thankfully, the school was thrown a lifeline when it managed to get on the One School Pathfinders programme and was given £8 million to build a new school from scratch. The man tasked with leading this project was David Taylor, who was appointed acting head in 2005.

Taylor wanted to build the school around his own vision and values; to research best practice, he went on exploratory trips to North America and Copenhagen. The overseas experience proved to be a real eye opener for Taylor. During the research trip to Copenhagen, he drew up his vision for the new school on a napkin, which now sits in a frame on the corridor wall outside his office. He also sought input from Alex Thomson, then deputy head at the school, who had a real insight into how students move around schools.

Taylor’s idea was to create four schools within a bigger school with a central atrium space at its heart. “You have to break down these big industrial schools into smaller units if each child is to be known and valued,” says Taylor.

Since the new school opened in 2012, the transformation in Stanley Park’s fortunes has been radical. Admissions have increased, attendance has gone up and results have improved significantly. Last month, it also won the TES Secondary School of the Year award.

“We are living proof that buildings make a difference, but I tell parents don’t choose our school because of our nice shiny new building – choose the school because of the values that we have in place,” says Taylor.

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