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What the PCP for schools means for architects

The government's ambitious school-building plan is a boon for practices

Announcing the Primary Capital Programme (PCP) funding last week, secretary of state for education Ed Balls said it will mean ‘we can build state-of-the-art primary schools at the heart of our communities’. This sentiment will be applauded by architects in the education sector. The fact that more than 1,500 primary schools will be rebuilt or refurbished over the next few years is a massive and welcome contribution to the future of our children’s education and a real cause for celebration.

Primary schools are central to a child’s development. We know that a school’s building makes a tangible difference to how well children learn, achieve and behave, and the improvement of these schools across the country is a real boost for local areas. This is too good an opportunity to get wrong, and architects are central to its success.

Yet, as we already know from 2004’s Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme, such a massive capital building project will be a complicated and difficult challenge at the best of times. Has the system thought enough about the lessons from BSF to avoid the primary sector facing similar teething problems?

A school is more than bricks and mortar – it’s a community of pupils, parents, staff and wider users. The vision for each primary school is increasingly complex and needs to take account of a raft of educational policy initiatives including the Children and Young People’s Plan, ‘Every Child Matters’, delivering co-located and inclusive spaces for children with special educational needs – not to mention the healthy schools agendas.

Involving young people, staff and the wider community in the briefing and design process in a meaningful way will be a critical part of getting this right.

The PCP is an opportunity to show that the industry can deliver high-quality design and innovative construction within an agile and timely procurement framework. For the 50 per cent of schools which will be rebuilt, refurbished or remodelled by the PCP, the opportunities are evident. But creative solutions will be equally important for the 50 per cent of primary schools relying not on additional funding, but on existing devolved capital to develop 21st-century learning spaces.

Local authorities now have the opportunity, using the expertise and insight the design community has to offer, to create strong partnerships that will support their strategies for change across every primary school in the country. This is the chance for architects to step up to the plate and really drive the agenda forward.

Consultation and participation with learners and other school users is key to designing beautiful, functional learning environments, so let’s make sure that’s at the heart of the process.

Primary schools must be planned and designed to improve opportunities and learning for children and young people, helping to ensure a long-term legacy for them and the communities they live in. We have some excellent examples of where this has happened already – we look forward to seeing many more in the coming years.

Ian Fordham is deputy chief executive of the British Council for School Environments

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