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Where now for school-building?

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The loss of BSF projects will impact on students, teachers and the future economy, says Ty Goddard

And so the decision came. It wasn’t unexpected but few of us welcomed the announcement that more than 700 school-building projects will be shelved. The era of Building Schools for the Future (BSF) is over.

It was always clear that the school-building programme was going to have to share the pain of other departments. Now we have to look to the consequences. The disappearance of many design and construction projects will be a blow to the recovery of the architecture profession.

The loss of investment in the future of our school buildings will also have an impact on the quality of our children’s education. Any architect will argue that a decent school environment makes a difference to how well teachers teach or children learn.

While considering the impact of the government’s decision we need to remember that much of the school estate is beyond its design life. Of the 25,000 schools in England, 80 per cent of primary schools and 74 per cent of secondary schools were built before 1976. Learning in rundown schools that are not fit for purpose is detrimental to children and creates additional challenges for teachers.

The announced review is welcome, but it’s not the first – previous reviews have had a limited value, so it is crucial that the review panel is focused on key issues.

The terms of reference include an exhortation around value for money, which is an important emphasis. BSF suffered from excessive bureaucracy and wasted costs during the procurement process. There’s a difference between money for investment and the waste and bureaucratic baggage that came with BSF. We’ve always posed the argument that the costs of waste and duplication are very different from the investment itself.

So where to go from here? We need to think critically about the design of the environments. Despite 100 years of state schooling there is still no national consensus on what makes a good school – we need a ‘decent school standard’ for new designs.

With this reduction in investment in new schools it is more imperative than ever that we examine the opportunities available aside from starting from scratch. Refurbishment has made up a significant proportion of recent school revamps, and mustn’t be overlooked. We can also refresh current buildings and re-use others. This is the kind of creative thinking that will keep the renewal of the school estate on track, and play to the strengths of our architects.

The state of the public finances is an important issue for the economic future of Britain. But so is the state of our education infrastructure. The children in our schools today are the building blocks of tomorrow’s economy. It remains imperative for our future society and economy to build an educational infrastructure fit to shape our children for the challenges of the 21st century.

  • Ty Goddard is chief executive of the British Council for School Environments
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