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Architecture Tomorrow - Schools

This year’s Architecture Tomorrow event at MIPIM UK is open for entries. In the third of the AJ’s expert viewpoints, Simon Foxell argues that a new school building programme is needed to cope with rising pupil numbers

The funding stream for the first tranche of Building Schools for the Future only started flowing 10 years ago. It already seems like a different geological era. The roller-coaster ride of school capital funding from the extreme neglect of the 1980s and 90s; through the ‘Education, education, education’ years of New Labour, with its ambitious plans for rebuilding almost the whole school estate; to Michael Gove’s free schools, academisation and baseline designs for the Priority School Building Programme (PSBP) of the past five has been nothing if not invigorating for the industry.

Yet, as we trundle back into the ride’s disembarkation area, we need to consider how, after all that activity, we haven’t even begun to deal with the main crisis in the school estate: rising pupil numbers.

The industry knows how to build a decent school

Although the first realisation that more schools would be needed came in 2002 when the birth trend turned upwards again, the overall response has been one of extraordinary inaction.

Current government projections suggest that by 2023 the number of school pupils in England will have increased by a total of 880,000 pupils over present numbers, the equivalent of more than 460 four form-of-entry primary and 400 eight form-of-entry secondary schools. But there are very few plans for new schools.

And, of course, these numbers only average out the problem, as some areas decline in population and others, the ones in real need, require far more places.

Those local education authorities already under pressure (particularly those in urban areas), have been responding to the need for more primary places by expanding existing schools and building in playgrounds.

But the annual ‘school places crisis’ isn’t going away and site intensification is unlikely to be a workable response to the need for a more complex provision of secondary places.

Takeley Primary School

Takeley Primary School by Sarah Wigglesworth Architects

A new school building programme (in parallel to the one presently and hesitantly under way to renew and refurbish the existing school estate) will be a necessity.  

The industry now knows how to build a decent school that enables teachers to deliver a high-quality education – something that certainly wasn’t true at the start of BSF.   The question is whether budgets, politicians and the availability or cost of land will conspire to let it happen.

Unfortunately, the recipe for a decent school isn’t the one currently delivering the undersized, overly cheap and inflexible buildings being built under PSBP. Schools need to be properly sized, be able to adapt and flex to suit very different future conditions and teaching methodologies – and to last, in good working order, for 60 or more years of daily hammering.

It’s both a necessity and a responsibility to be building decent schools again.   We need to get back on that roller-coaster for another nerve-shredding twister of a ride.

Simon Foxell is principal of The Architects Practice

Architecture Tomorrow

Submit your projects for Architecture Tomorrow here. The deadline for entries is 12 June.

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