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Lessons learned: from BSF to the paradigm shift

[School design special: Introduction] Sunand Prasad of education expert Penoyre & Prasad introduces our school design special and reveals his hopes for the future of the building type.

In the face of it, the culture of school design is dramatically different from what it was in the first 10 years of the century. Then the discussions were all about the transformation taking place in teaching and learning and how school buildings and landscape could support such change. The ‘IT revolution’ was seen as having a particular effect on the way children and young people obtain and exchange knowledge; gone was the dominance of ‘chalk and talk’, where a teacher stands in front of 20-30 children and imparts facts.

‘Personalised learning’ - teaching to suit the different ways people learn - was producing good results and demanding new and flexible ways of using space in schools. The areas in between the classrooms were just as important - some would argue more important - as classrooms for their role in shaping education. Alongside encouraging innovations in response to pedagogy, there was serious thinking about social impact, via community use of schools, and environmental impact, via additional investment in carbon reduction.

Now the pressure to build for under £1,400 per square metre trumps all but basic standards. I have no doubt that there is a huge scope for innovation in the way we design and build so that we can get better value from public investment. Not only did Buildings Schools for the Future, a centrally paid for programme to build and refurbish thousands of schools, fail to benefit from economies of scale, it was saddled with a clumsy and wasteful procurement process. However, the state schools building programme has gone from being bloated to being starved.

The target cost is not in itself the problem; a smarter design, construction and property industry could achieve it. Ironically, the volume of work represented by BSF would be much more likely to produce the repeats required to get real value out of a template, offsite, kit-of-parts approach in a market with a number of players.

With its far smaller volume, the Priority School Building Programme would need to be truly centralised and delivered by a single entity to have a real chance of achieving lower costs for good quality. But that is not an option. What we have instead is a squeeze on areas, particularly the in between spaces thought to be so important yesterday, and a squeeze on quality of fabric and materials.

We must remember that not everything has changed in the world of school design. BSF only affected English state schools. Scottish and Welsh school buildings programmes are displaying greater continuity of thought despite the austerity of budgets. Isn’t it interesting that public schools continue to invest heavily in better buildings and facilities to attract their fee-paying students?

For them, investing in teachers does not equate to skimping on premises, while this government believes that’s the only way forward for those who can’t afford private education. School buildings externally and internally send out strong messages to children about self worth, the value of education, and the sense of a community. No one understands this better than private schools.

The Priority Schools Building Programme is just getting going and when the individual schools are being designed, pressure from the school communities, despite the far smaller scope for consultation, will encourage designers to think and argue harder to recover some of the values that are under threat.

For all the apparent change the underlying issues remain the same: a significant tranche of the English schools estate is in need of renewal - and virtually all of it needs to dramatically improve its energy performance; teaching and learning are still evolving, which makes adaptability essential; and architectural quality and its effect are both tangible and predictable.

CABE’s 10-points of school design remain valid and useful - just harder to achieve.

Sunand Prasad is a founging partner of Penoyre & Prasad and former RIBA president

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