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Gove under attack in the House of Lords

Under-fire education minister Michael Gove has been accused of ‘falling short of his responsibilities’ for pushing ‘banal and standardised’ school designs to replace the ditched Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme

In a debate in the House of Lords on Monday (14 February) Labour peer Alan Howarth said he feared that a proposed roll out of ‘templated and pre-fabricated’ schools would also contradict the government’s own localism plans by imposing centrally backed designs on local communities.

Howarth went on to repeat concerns he had previously voiced about the so-called James Review panel which has been charged with simplifying the procurement procedure for future school projects and includes ‘experts’ from Tesco and Dixons Store Group (AJ 16.07.10).

Howarth said: ‘Does [Gove] recognise that schools historically have been built as statements of civic and community values, and that if you impose central, standardised and banal designs of the kind epitomised across the country by Tesco and Dixon’s, whose representatives are advising the Secretary of State, then you will be falling short in your responsibilities?’

The peer took the opportunity to defend fellow lord Richard Rogers against Gove’s recent claims that schools designed by the architect - or other ‘award-wining architects’ - did nothing to improve learning and that the profession had profiteered from the previous school building programme.

Howarth said: ‘[Gove’s] diatribe [at the Free School Conference] was particularly ill judged, as he commented individually on my noble friend Lord Rogers. After all, it is widely accepted that the design of the Mossbourne Academy by my noble friend did contribute to the transformation of academic achievement there.’

Gove is facing mounting pressure over his contentious decision to scrap the £55 billion Building Schools for the Future programme. Last Friday the High Court ruled that Gove had unlawfully failed to consult six local authorities before shelving a raft of well-progressed schools schemes – including projects designed by Capita Symonds – in July last year.

Full transcript from the House of Lords debate

Lord Howarth of Newport: ‘My Lords, the Secretary of State has quarrelled not only with local authorities but also with architects. Can we hope that we will not hear a repeat of the diatribe he launched against architects at the Free Schools conference? It was a diatribe that was particularly ill judged, as he commented individually on my noble friend Lord Rogers. After all, it is widely accepted that the design of the Mossbourne Academy by my noble friend did contribute to the transformation of academic achievement there.

If the Secretary of State is turning over a new leaf in this regard, will he listen carefully to what has been said by Sunand Prasad, the former president of the RIBA, who is not entirely opposed to the new approach that the Secretary of State wishes to adopt?

He sees a place for templates, prefabricated parts and repeated designs, but has advised that you still have to take account of site, locality and context. Surely that is important in relation to the Government’s own aspirations for a new localism. Does he expect that people, within their localities, will take kindly to having designs centrally imposed upon them? Can we learn the lessons from the Building Schools for the Future programme? Can we also learn the lessons from the Australian experiment, which is rather more akin to the approach that the Government intend to adopt and which, although it has its limitations, has been partially successful?

Finally, does he recognise that schools historically have been built as statements of civic and community values, and that if you impose central, standardised and banal designs of the kind epitomised across the country by Tesco and Dixon’s, whose representatives are advising the Secretary of State, then you will be falling short in your responsibilities?’

Lord Hill of Oareford: I have rather a lot of sympathy with the thrust of the remarks made by the noble Lord. Through the James Review, the Government are striving to achieve on the standardisation of design a sensible balance between as much standardisation-if that is the right word-or replication as is possible. That is because, in a time of limited resources, to design each school ab initio every time and not to learn the lessons from what has worked well in previous school buildings does not make sense, and neither does each time to incur a set of consultants’ fees, architects’ fees and all the rest of it. Our view is that there must be ways of getting greater standardisation, but at the same time I accept that part of gaining acceptance of a building involves including the people who will be concerned with running it-the head, the staff and the pupils-in the process. It is a matter of trying to find the balance between a common-sense approach to standardisation while also allowing some flexibility around local circumstances.

Gove’s BSF review team

(Chair) Sebastian James, Group Operations Director of DSG international

Kevin Grace, Tesco - Director of Property Services

Barry Quirk, Chief Executive of Lewisham

John Hood former Vice-Chancellor of University of Oxford

Sir John Egan, former Chief Executive of Jaguar and BAA

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