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This school-building review merits an A for economics, but an F for history

Paul Finch’s letter from London: The James Review is sensible in parts, but a history-free zone

‘The thinking is that school buildings don’t need to be beautiful, they need to be fit for purpose.’ This gruesome example of what passes for thought in the minds of British cultural apparatchiks was uttered recently by Tim Byles, who runs the government’s Partnerships for Schools quango.

Until the last election he extolled the virtues of Building Schools for the Future and was hailed as the man who was making it all thoroughly modern and efficient.

That has now all changed since the programme has been scrapped. I don’t ever recall the last government demanding that schools be beautiful but unfit for purpose, but that was then and this is now. Amnesia can be helpful in Whitehall.

One can’t describe Sebastian James as suffering from the same condition, since until very recently he knew nothing about school-building but a lot about Dixons, the electricals retailer he heads. His review, commissioned by the schools secretary, Michael Gove, was broadly welcomed because of the general recognition that BSF wasn’t working well enough.

Unfortunately, at least from the point of view of architects, Gove’s poisonous little attacks on the profession, as unpleasant as they were mendacious, cast a cloud over the review, especially given his stated belief in flatpacks and the joys of being taught in converted supermarkets. The addition of a man from Tesco to the review group only added to the incipient paranoia about what it might herald.

Despite all this, there is much in the James Review that is sensible and clearly expressed, and it is worth reading in its entirety. It is a substantial document, produced at speed, and it seems to me to have nailed the key problems that have afflicted school provision for more than a decade. These problems are not fundamentally about architecture, but about organisational structure, clarity of programme, and equitable funding.

There is hardly any criticism of architects who have actually been designing schools, although the cost of consultancy to particular authorities is raised as evidence of excessive spending. These look like exceptions that prove the rule. The sober tone of the report extends to its recommendations, which are about the provision of school buildings in the round.

It is true that there is a call for standardisation, and for common details, but this could be pursued in an intelligent way as a sophisticated design challenge. The fundamental proposal is that central government should take responsibility for provision, not just funding, and that the local authority, in general, will act as the local organiser. Free schools are a bit of a side issue.

Looking at the report in the round, I have two broad concerns. First, there is an implicit assumption that it is contractors who will lead us to a promised land of faster, cheaper building. Unfortunately they have been tried and found wanting. Construction costs in Britain are high, and not just in relation to school building. Where is the evidence that the industry is up to it? In scant supply, unless there is a skilled and knowledgeable client. And, to be fair, the review asks for a new central client body, although it is not entirely clear who this would be.

My second concern is the history-free nature of the review. Where is the analysis of whether or not previous standardised building systems were good or bad? Where is the story of Building Bulletins, of skilled ministry teams working from the centre, able to advise local authorities? Were previous cost regimes all bad? Is PFI wrong in principle or in practice?

However, despite some worries and cavils (CABE’s substantial work is erroneously described and seriously underestimated; little distinction is made between new-build and projects involving refurbishment; the suggestion that every school was ‘individually designed’ under BSF is a strange description), the James Review is a thorough piece of work that deserves a serious response.

Let’s hope it marks an end to Mr Gove’s slanderous speeches about designers – who care more than most about environments for the young.

Readers' comments (1)

  • The problem about history - and of course I absolutely agree with you Paul - is that Rt Hon Sebastian James was still at Eton with Dave when Thatcher started dismantling the research departments and libraries, at the then DES for example, and when ILEA with its vast LCC/GLC knowledge history began heading for the rubbish tip.
    The other problem is that standardised building systems were good AND bad... some (like the ILEA's MACE) particularly bad.
    Perhaps Mr James' review will wedge the door open far enough to let in some serious strategic design thinking?


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