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UK school buildings: a saga of raised and shattered hopes

Michael Gove
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Michael Gove’s decision to scrap BSF in 2010 caused exam results to plummet in the affected schools, writes Peter Clegg

he last 10 years have been witness to radical changes in the design and procurement of schools. The development first of the academies programme and then of Building Schools for the Future (BSF) has allowed educationalists, teachers and architects to rethink the very idea of what constitutes a school.

However, the capital programme for schools has become a political football, and with the demise of BSF we are essentially back to where we were 10 years ago when we first began to question whether the new schools we were building were actually for purpose. In the intervening period, space standards and allowable building costs have increased and then decreased again. Acoustic standards and sustainability targets have become more ambitious and then more relaxed. The 2009 government statement that all new schools would need to be zero-energy by 2016 has slipped into oblivion. The schools building programme has become a saga of raised and shattered hopes.

With the ending of the BSF programme in July 2010, 715 schools (one fifth of the schools in the country) that had been promised new buildings had their hopes devastated by a political volte-face. Our analysis of those schools that were promised new buildings and then had them cancelled – following a largely unsuccessful appeal period – shows an abrupt 12.5 per cent decline in performance (see graph below); a decline most surely caused by disillusionment following former education secretary Michael Gove’s decision to scrap the programme.

Attainment graph

Attainment graph

So apart from the dangers of playing politics with the schools building programme, what are the most important lessons we have we learned from the 10 years of new academies and BSF schemes?

Firstly we have seen the development of a new generation of high-density inner-city schools, often built on tight urban sites, or constrained by available space because of the need to build new schools while existing ones remain operational. A lack of space on the ground means we need to build taller; sharing circulation spaces such as atriums rather than spreading classrooms out along corridors. We have developed schools with half-buried assembly halls and roof spaces as playgrounds, and schools have once again become a part of the urban fabric, with shop windows on to the street. The impact on pedagogy has yet to be assessed but, particularly in inner-city areas, schools have become, physically and psychologically, a part of the community they serve. Intriguingly this situation is more like the first generation of secondary schools built a century ago, where schools were buildings that had a strong urban character and community significance.

Secondly we have learned the value of close dialogue between architects and teachers. Some of the most successful schools we have built are the result of a shared design process. When there is a disconnection between the staff, with the pedagogy imposed from above, we have seen schools fail. The dialogue of change and regeneration is immensely useful to architects as well as teachers and champions of the school’s vision. But radical change needs to be managed well. We know that insistence on more open-plan space simply doesn’t work, but with an engaged staff and strong leadership the design of the school can contribute to an exciting transformation in pedagogy.



Source: Hufton + Crow

Feilden Clegg Bradley’s Plymouth School of Creative Arts

Thirdly, we have seen space standards rise and then fall again by between 10 and 15 per cent, and building costs rise and fall by 35 to 50 per cent. At the beginning of the century we were building schools that were not only uninspiring but hardly fit for purpose; built to minimum standards and minimum cost. The attention focused by the government on the school estate as a potential generator of change within the educational system led to value being placed on designing decent quality buildings. Ten years ago, for instance, the fresh air ventilation rate for a school was 3 litres per second per person, compared with 10 litres per second per person for office workers! New schools consisted of little more than cramped classrooms with no storage space, which were disheartening to teachers, particularly those used to larger spaces. And we have always known that narrow corridors and stairways, and poorly designed toilets are spaces where bullying occurs, but the space standards could allow little else. Once raised, both aspirations and standards are now falling so fast that in the future we aren’t even going to benefit from the boost in attainment that merely the promise of a new school could inspire.

The best schools produced during the last 10 years have genuinely transformed education, and brought new dignity and freedom to the teaching profession. It is ironic that as we enter a period of growth in demand for school places the like of which we have not seen since the early 70s (see graph below), we will be building new schools that fail to meet the standards we set 10 years ago, and which are unlikely to benefit from 10 years of unique experience in rethinking school design.

School population

School population

Of all the lessons, however, the most humbling for architects is that aspiration and inspiration derived from leadership and teachers themselves have a much greater impact on performance outcomes than the physical school environment. We can facilitate good education and create flexible spaces to suit different teaching approaches. We can provide a healthy, enlightening school environment, and create buildings that inspire and delight. But our research shows that the contribution a new building makes to academic performance is overshadowed by the influence of teachers and particularly head teachers. The promise of a new school seems to generate a greater improvement in attainment than tends to happen after its delivery. It appears that simply focusing attention and offering help can begin to alleviate a problem, whether one is dealing with underperforming children or schools.

Ultimately, it is the gift of attentiveness and love that is at the heart of the educational process. It takes great buildings and great teachers to make a great school.

Peter Clegg is co-founder and senior partner at Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios. His book ‘Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios Learning From Schools’ is published by Artifice.

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