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Essay: No future

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[#GREATSCHOOLS] Architect Nick Mirchandani and educationalist Dr Sharon Wright present a provocative essay on the flawed Priority Schools Building Programme

In his essay ‘School of Hard Knocks’ (AJ 13.03.15), Mark Dudek argued that the architecture community needed to be better at putting forward the case for good school design. He is correct, of course, but it is no mean feat to battle the current system of large-scale procurement, a confusion of funding sources and politicians seemingly deaf to alternative opinions.

On 18 March the Education Select Committee held a one-off evidence session on the Priority School Building Programme (PSBP).  Giving evidence were witnesses André Baird (National Association of Headteachers representative and headteacher, Foxfield School, Wirral), Stephen Beechey (group strategy director and managing director, government affairs, Wates Group), Andrew Seager (headteacher, Stratford School Academy, London) and David Simmonds, (Conservative borough councillor and chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People’s Board). A politician, two headteachers and a builder. You’d be forgiven for thinking the schools within this programme design themselves. 

The headline from the session was Andrew Seager saying that PSBP was ‘probably the worst experience I’ve ever had as a head teacher’. He told the committee that he now has a ‘functional big box’, which he’s not unhappy with, but the school will have to spend significant amounts of its own money on external areas and the things that mysteriously dropped from the design brief after being agreed with the Education Funding Agency (EFA), such as secure perimeter fencing.

The evidence to the committee is a fairly joyless read, with a liberal scattering of words such as functional, efficient, reduced area and cheaper.  They get in a muddle when they try to compare the Building Schools for the Future programme (BSF) and PSBP because there really is no comparison between an aspiration for locally-led design, which sets out to deliver buildings to inspire and engage, and a centrally controlled approach to building cheaper and smaller.

Despite his bad experience with the PSBP procurement process, Seager felt his school had ‘no future’ in its previous building, and he couldn’t necessarily recruit the quality staff he needed to provide a really good education. ‘Teachers can look around and think: I can work in that one, or that one, or that one. I will go somewhere else,’ he said. It is often forgotten that schools are workplaces as well as learning spaces and, while former education secretary Michael Gove said it was all about the teaching, what happens if your building is so awful no one wants to work there?  Worse still, while teachers have some choice in their place of work, what do those same inadequate buildings say to students about their importance and the value of learning.

The key relationship in any school design project is that between the end-user clients – usually represented by the headteacher – and the architect. Long after the EFA has left and the contractor has taken down its hoardings, it will be school staff who have to live with the design and it is the architect they will praise or curse for the spaces they take over. And they make a forceful case for good educational design. Melanie Radford, principal at the new University Technical College (UTC) Cambridge for students aged 14-19 (see page 42), has said that ‘the exquisite building design allows the culture of UTC Cambridge to be aligned with a scientific workplace – fostering collaboration, investigation and innovation’. This surely is no coincidence, but exactly what the architect, Hawkins\Brown, intended when it first put pen to paper.

BSF can and should be criticised for not clearly establishing desired outcomes and for not carrying out rigorous post-occupancy evaluation. However, a dearth of auditable evidence for the relationship between good school design and educational benefits does not mean that it does not exist. To constantly be told that ‘anecdotal evidence’ has no place in determining whether school design is effective is to dismiss the professionalism and judgment of the school leaders. Headteachers such as Seager and Radford know the difference a good building can make – in pupil motivation, parents’ confidence in the choices they have made for their children, teachers’ decisions over where to apply for a job, and how a community feels about the school in its midst.  We should listen to them. So long as we agree that design quality is important in our homes and in our workplaces, it is incomprehensible that anyone would suggest that it is otherwise in schools.

In this light, PSBP exhibits two fundamental flaws. Firstly it is conceived entirely as a repair and replacement programme. The surveys on which the second wave of projects were established focused only on condition, with no evaluation of spaces’ suitability for learning in the 21st century. As a result, many hundreds of school buildings earmarked for major refurbishment or replacement under BSF are now considered ‘acceptable’. They are assumed to be suitable for learning simply because they are not leaking or falling down. Furthermore, as Seager related to the select committee, funding for new PSBP buildings is only adequate to deliver the very minimum provision. Niceties like excellence (or perimeter fencing) are extra.

Secondly, and even more important, are the standards to which we are now building. While environmental criteria have been improved over BSF, area allowances have been reduced. When Building Bulletins (BB) 98 and 99 replaced BB82 in 2004/6, they increased area allowances for secondary and primary schools by 18 and 25 per cent respectively. They did so for good reason, in recognition of changing educational needs and the inadequacy of the earlier guidance. BB103, however, reversed these improvements, this time by 15 and 5 per cent. In doing so it is inevitable that functionality is sacrificed, limiting pedagogic practice and putting additional pressure on social spaces and circulation in particular.

The result is a very real risk that at least some new PSBP buildings will be unfit for purpose, now and forever. If so, then this is a crime even worse than the extravagancies of BSF. To spend more money than necessary on something worthwhile is a poor investment.  To spend anything at all on something that is dysfunctional is no investment at all but, instead, a complete waste of scarce resources.

And yet there are reasons for optimism. The EFA’s baseline designs have not been widely rolled out in an unthinking manner, as might have been feared, but treated instead as a starting point. Architects working in the sector and their clients continue to seek alternative ways of addressing area and funding restrictions. Instead of replicating the Baseline Designs’ 1.8m-wide corridors, with no external views and little daylight, they have sought other, more creative solutions.

In researching a new book on school design we have seen many such examples, at all scales and in different circumstances, from the Liverpool Schools Model as adopted by BDP’s St John Bosco Art College (AJ 13.03.15) to Atkins’ Lime Tree Primary Academy in Sale, Manchester. Each addresses the restrictions in funding and area allocations differently. St John Bosco uses a simple, efficient structure and deep-plan form to deliver more area for the same funding. Lime Tree forgoes narrow internal circulation for generous external, covered routes. Both are individual, tailored solutions, based on a particular school’s requirements and clear dialogue between architect and end-users. While they offer valuable ideas for others to consider, they are not to be replicated carelessly.  They may work brilliantly for some schools; they will not for others.

That architects have been able to apply their skills in this way is hardly surprising. This, after all, is what we are trained to do, responding to the particularities of brief, context, budget and programme by using our creativity to balance often conflicting demands. In a time of austerity we need the invention and breadth of vision that architects bring more than ever. Good design, for schools as in all things, is not an unnecessary luxury to be bolted on when it can be afforded. Rather it is an inherent and crucial part of the solution.

  • Nick Mirchandani and Sharon Wright are contributors to and co-editors of a new book on school design, Future Schools: Innovative Design for Existing and New Buildings, to be published by the RIBA in May


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