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Schools debate: Colin Stansfield Smith on the James Review

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The Hampshire schools pioneer fears calls for standardisation in school building will lead to ‘a depressing repeat of the 1950s and 1960s’

Given my long involvement with school building, reading the James Review is like experiencing déjà vu; a thoroughly depressing repeat of what we did in the 1950s and 1960s. Even the language used is the same.

My arrival in Hampshire in 1973 coincided with an emerging dissatisfaction with how the county procured schools. Hampshire had become what I called the working class for SCOLA-system built schools. In the 20 years before my arrival, several hundred schools were generated in this system.

This process of procurement had initially been recognised as the only way an expanding county could satisfy the demand for school places. The rationale for the system, with its dry construction, factory-made components, bulk purchasing and basic flexibility, was totally convincing. However, the main justification was what could be achieved in the time available.

But after several decades, this process of procurement had been reduced to a dull routine, a formula for generating debilitating, institutionalised and impoverished environments. Hampshire in the early seventies continued to think of itself under the panacea of ‘Modernism’, which seemed to support the argument for forward thinking, but this was grossly misguided.

The whole process was under central government control, which aspired to uniformity and consistency under a political ethos of egalitarianism. Its format was standardisation with a yardstick-measurement mentality.

The intention was to build ‘cheap’, and that is certainly what was achieved

It did not seem to matter what the context was; all questions got the same standard answer, and I mean the social, educational and political contexts, as well as the physical. These repeats created aesthetically impoverished environments that deflated the spirit, educational wellbeing or unique sense of place. They took no account of heritage or landscape of value. The intention was to build ‘cheap’, and that is certainly what was achieved.

It’s only now that we are realising what a false economy the whole process has been, taking account of maintenance, running costs and debilitating environments that hold no welcome for local communities. Nearly all of these system-built schools were constructed in what I call ‘a suburban culture’. Few of them were challenging in a contextual sense, being essentially in open space with boundaries formed by a chain-link fence.

Urban contextual problems represent the overwhelming challenge for the future of school design

The worst part for me as lead designer was what these procedures did to the teams of professionals involved. They lost their drive to produce sensitive and high-quality educational environments. There was a lack of aspiration and good, relevant design that took account of the client’s desires and needs.

Urban contextual problems represent the overwhelming challenge for the future of school design. These cannot be solved by a process of standardisation – only by exploiting the uniqueness and richness of a site will school design be inspirational.

Regrettably there are now very few architects in government, either centrally or locally. The issue that really matters in school procurement is the quality of thinking and the relevance of ideas in a particular context. Architects are good at this, but they have lost their status, and clients do not necessarily identify some architects’ talent and inspiration. I say some architects, because few demonstrate the intelligence and design skills needed to make buildings work.

We should believe in educational environments that improve over time. The motto ‘Long-life, loose-fit, low-energy’ still provides the best motivation. Schools should now have an extended occupancy and use, for both the school and community, which far exceeds what was deemed acceptable in the 1950s and 1960s.

This inevitably brings me to examples of the most revered independent schools in the country like Winchester, Eton and Harrow. Each is set in an integrated context and represents an urban rather than a suburban culture. I do not seek to recommend we could extend such privilege, but it seems important to remind ourselves that such lovely environments exist, and have a sense of permanence.

Finally, why does all school building have to be completed within a timeframe that competes with the constraints of a post-war programme? We need more time for research, especially as we enter the challenges of a complex urban culture during a recession.

About the author:

Colin Stansfield Smith was Hampshire County Council’s head architect from 1973 to 1992. In 1991 he won the RIBA Gold Medal. The following year he became professor of architecture at the University of Portsmouth.


Key recommendations of the James Review of Education Capital  [April 2011]

New buildings should be based on a clear set of standardised drawings and specifications that incorporate the latest thinking on educational requirements and the bulk of regulatory needs. This will allow for continuous learning to improve quality and reduce cost. Currently the bulk of new schools are designed from scratch with significant negative consequences on time, cost and quality.

There must be a single, strong, expert, intelligent ‘client’ acting for the public sector in its relationships with the construction industry and responsible for both the design and the delivery of larger projects. This body must be accountable for the delivery of buildings on time and to the right budget and quality standards. This is a philosophical shift in approach as it would mean that the Department for Education will deliver not money, but rather a building to meet local needs.

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