POOR DESIGN CAN GET IN THE WAY OF TEACHING
With far too many new schools in the UK not meeting CABE quality standards, there are calls for the government to take a closer look at the procurement and design processes of education buildings.
CABE's 2006 audit of newly built secondary-school buildings gave a useful snapshot into the 'quality' debate - far too many were 'poor' or 'mediocre'. This overview of a sample of 52 school buildings was perhaps not a shock to many of those working across the teaching, design and building professions, who are often part of a procurement process which can deliver volume, but seems to find quality more of a challenge.
The government is committed to major investment in our education infrastructure. So is the Opposition, apparently. After decades of 'patch and mend', this huge investment in schemes such as Building Schools for Future (BSF) should be celebrated. That's why we at the British Council for School Environments (BCSE) are organising the first national School Environments Week in June 2007. Capital investment in schools is rising from £700 million in 1996-97 to £8 billion by 2010-11. More than 3,500 secondary schools are set to be built or refurbished over the next 15 years - as are primaries and early-years settings. Pathfinders are bursting out across the country in what will be the biggest education infrastructure investment our society has seen for generations.
The effects of ill-considered design in schools have been well documented. Poor design gets in the way of effective teaching and learning. Bad lighting and poor ventilation can severely affect young people's learning experiences, let alone the teacher's working experience. Bad design can lead to bullying. A poll of students found that 63 per cent disliked their classroom spaces and felt very little ownership over their own school environments. The effects on morale and motivation are obvious. Bad design does nothing to support good learning.
As long ago as 2005, speaking at the launch of the RIBA's 'Smart PFI' campaign, I focused on the lack of time in the present BSF process for bidders to interact properly with school communities. Under BSF, having to fix key design decisions in twelve-odd weeks leaves little time for understanding how teaching and learning are changing. While BSF sought to learn lessons from the early one-off PFI projects (forming long-term contractual relationships in the creation of Local Education Partnerships) it is the lack of meaningful stakeholder engagement that will hinder the transforming elements of this investment. This is not about patronising young people or their teachers - it is common sense to build public places that people understand and feel they own.
It is to the RIBA's credit that it has not been afraid to air some of the strategic delivery challenges that exist and thereby help explain some of the issues of poor design that surface around our schools. But no one party can have all the answers. We are all duty bound to look beyond the headline horror stories and help find solutions to common challenges.
The RIBA's 'smart PFI' models are worth testing in England. They are already working in Northern Ireland in the health sector. In one model the client prepares an outline design in advance of going to the market; in the other the preferred bidder is selected on grounds other than design and then embarks on the design with the client organisation. As the RIBA says: 'The smart PFI proposals enable the public-sector client to benefit from design intelligence at the early stages of the project.' It is also important to note that this gives stakeholders time to be involved in the process.
As the recent National Audit Office report on Academies noted, it is this time and interaction that is an all-important factor in good design.
Currently, each bidding team within BSF has to put forward a number of sample schemes to a high level of completed detail. Much human energy and investment is wasted. One member of the BCSE said to me: 'The value of aborted design costs put forward by bidders is monumental, and could be enough to pay for a whole new primary school in every BSF wave.' In response, the BSCE has put together an expert working group which will make recommendations on how to improve the procurement process.
Yet in some quarters there seems an unwillingness to even participate in the debate. The likely political consequences are clear. This huge investment in our infrastructure will come with a large dose of pessimism. Unless we act, this will tip into cynicism with profound consequences not only for those thinking about bidding, but also for how teachers, pupils and communities will embrace their new surroundings.
The ripple of worry has begun - it is up to those in the Treasury and across Whitehall to begin to listen to the hard-won diverse experience from the ground. The voice of the design profession has never been more necessary. The current system duplicates effort, wastes money, and fails to contribute to the sharing of learning or play to the strengths of Britain's world-class designers. With the evident passion out there to get this right, we must create a process that plays to all of our strengths and nurtures the investment and transformation that is needed.
FURTHER READING: Smart PFI: RIBA Position Paper Designing Schools for Extended Services, DfES Ty Goddard is the director of the British Council for School Environments ( www. bcse. uk. net). The BCSE is a membership organisation made up of schools, local authorities, construction companies, architects and all those involved in and concerned about designing excellent learning environments.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author writing in a personal capacity.
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