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Are academies the last hope for good school design?

Tidemill Academy in Deptford, south-east London, primary school by Percy Thomas Edwards, 2011
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The move to convert all council-run schools to academies has been widely criticised, but with ministers indifferent to the virtues of good school design, academy chains could offer better prospects for architects

The government’s plan to take schools out of local authority control has been met with huge resistance since it was announced last month.

‘Bonkers,’ is how one Conservative councillor described her party’s drive to force all schools to convert to academies. ‘If it ain’t broke don’t fix it,’ Melinda Tilley, the cabinet member for education in Oxfordshire, told the Daily Mirror a week after the announcement. Days later, teachers backed a ballot for strike action during the National Union of Teachers’ conference, where the Labour leader got a standing ovation for opposing the policy.

Architects with education practices have pitched into the furore too.

‘George Osborne’s programme of academisation is a dereliction of duty,’ says Robin Nicholson, a senior partner at Cullinan Studio. ‘With some great exceptions, the educational results of academies are as mixed as the schools they replaced.’ Nick Mirchandani, a director at Architecture PLB and governor at a council-run school, declares himself ‘completely bemused’ by the idea of forced conversions, calling the policy ‘a massively retrograde and undemocratic step’. To Peter Clegg, senior partner at Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, the wresting of education from councils is ‘another nail in the coffin for local authorities’.

Undaunted, the government is pressing on with new legislation to accelerate the already breakneck speed at which schools are being converted to academies.

Proposed new laws, outlined in last month’s white paper, Educational Excellence Everywhere, will allow the education secretary to seize school land held by councils once schools officially gain academy status. Another measure mooted will let ministers order local authorities to make their land available for free schools, another kind of academy.

This is the biggest land grab since the dissolution of the monasteries

While intended to accelerate conversions, these legal measures have served to further inflame the councils that still run the majority of schools. Some of the harshest rhetoric against these new powers came from Angela Mason, cabinet member for children in the Labour-run north London borough of Camden, which is in the process of spending £32 million on major building investment for three of its schools.

‘This is the biggest land grab since the dissolution of the monasteries,’ she told her local paper, the Camden New Journal.

The Local Government Association, which represents authorities in England, urged ministers to ‘rethink’ the proposals in a letter to The Observer last month.

Northampton Academy by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, 2005

Northampton Academy by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, 2005

Source: Peter Cook

Northampton Academy by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, 2005

But what will this mandatory ‘academisation’ of schools in England mean for architectural practice and for design standards? And how fast will these apparently radical conversions take place?

If ministerial ambitions are anything to go by, the pace of change could be spectacularly speedy. The Department for Education’s white paper expects councils to be divested of any role in running schools by 2022. Councils will get just four years to convert their remaining schools to academies after which time ministers will ‘take new powers to direct’ conversions, the paper states.

While this goal might seem outlandish, it comes after a heady acceleration in conversions that took even the DfE by surprise. After it loosened the rules on conversions in 2010, senior officials expected around 200 schools to switch to academy status each year. In fact, more than 700 converted on average each year until 2015. According to the latest figures, the number of academies has shot up from 203, when the coalition government came to power, to 5,170 last month (see box). Just under six out of ten state-funded secondary and 17 per cent of primary schools are now academies.

Enterprise South Liverpool Academy by BDP, 2013

Enterprise South Liverpool Academy by BDP, 2013

Source: David Barbour

Enterprise South Liverpool Academy by BDP, 2013

This proliferation has given architects time to become accustomed to the relatively new client of the academy trust, the charitable organisations that run this kind of school.

‘Academies are now experienced clients,’ says Sharon Wright, a former DfE official who now advises on school building projects. ‘They are easy to work with and quite clear about what they need to match their vision for their academies.’

As a group of increasing size, the academy sector is increasingly difficult to define, Wright says. ‘There is big variation in their vision for education, how they present themselves, their rationale and their philosophy.’

But while once widely accepted as top drawer for innovation and performance, evidence for this acclaim for academies has thinned as they have proliferated. There are five years from a child starting at an academy to taking their GCSEs and many academies have simply not been around long enough to be judged on their exam results. 

‘When a programme rapidly expands, the evidence needs to catch up and the evidence isn’t running at the same pace,’ Wright says.

Langley Academy, Berkshire, by Foster + Partners, 2008

Langley Academy, Berkshire, by Foster + Partners, 2008

Source: Nigel Young

Langley Academy, Berkshire, by Foster + Partners, 2008

Academies’ claim as forerunners in school design also appears to be stretching credibility, as they suffer the same cuts in state funding as their council-run counterparts.

The first wave of academies under Tony Blair’s Labour administration were known for appointing ‘headline architects’ with ‘budgets to match’, says Mark Rowe, a partner at architect Penoyre & Prasad.

In 2008, Foster + Partners completed the Langley Academy in Slough, with classrooms for 1,150 pupils, 10 science labs and a cavernous atrium to serve as an exhibition space and assembly room. Another flagship academy, Evelyn Grace in Brixton, south London, was designed by Zaha Hadid Architects and completed in July 2010, two months after the Conservative/Lib-Dem coalition came to power. Its building includes a library, sports hall, workshops and performance rooms – with a price tag of £36.5 million.

The generous funding environment into which early academies were born was swept away by the coalition, and with it much leeway for innovative design. Labour’s £55 billion Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme was replaced by the Priority Schools Building Programme (PSBP), which cut costs and favours cookie-cutter standardisation. The £23.2 billion allotted to PSBP this parliament compares poorly to the relative largesse of BSF.

If there is more innovation and more interesting things are being done, it will be a good place for architects to be involved

Rowe admits there are now fewer opportunities for well-designed schools. ‘But they do come through’, he adds. ‘The kind of people who want well-designed schools will come and find us.’ Two of Penoyre & Prasad’s most recent projects have been London academies: St Mary Magdalene Church of England Primary School in Greenwich, and Legatum Academy in the Olympic Park.

As a non-executive director of the REAch2, the largest primary-only academy chain in the UK, Rowe is personally positive about academies’ role in education. ‘It is fair to say that they have encouraged innovation in education and how schools are run,’ he says. ‘If there is more innovation and more interesting things are being done, it will be a good place for architects to be involved.’

The political environment into which academies are now arriving is, however, distinctly different to the one enjoyed by the first, well-funded projects, Rowe adds. ‘They were very different beasts; they could do something really different and special,’ he says. ‘It is a whole different world that we are in now.’

Paul Monaghan, director at Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, agrees that academies have been supportive of good design for school buildings, and reaped the rewards as a result. ‘All the academies we have designed have done really well afterwards,’ he says. ‘Part of becoming an academy can be getting a new building, equipment and great leaders and teachers. There is a new ambition for the school and an enthusiasm to push the design agenda.’

Westminster Academy by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, 2007

Westminster Academy by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, 2007

Source: Tim Soar

Westminster Academy by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, 2007

Monaghan, however, rejects the idea that only academies commission well-designed schools. ‘A good local authority is a good client too,’ he says. ‘To suggest it is only academies isn’t right.’ His practice worked with construction firm Laing O’Rourke on two of the 18 schools it was contracted to build for Barnsley Council, including Holy Trinity, a Catholic and Church of England school. The practice also worked for Wandsworth Council to design the 2015 Stirling Prize-winning Burntwood School, though the school became an academy during the construction process.

Monaghan suggests that architects could use the advent of ‘academisation’ to get back in the room with politicians and discuss the role of good design in education. ‘We used to be in that room during the Building Schools for the Future programme,’ he adds. ‘But the Priority Schools Building Programme has a very stringent budget; most of the results I have seen are like tin sheds. Some of the most famous schools in the country are amazing pieces of architecture but people ignore that.’

Architecture PLB’s Mirchandani also hopes ministers will re-examine their approach towards school design as they push for wholesale conversions. Budget cuts and the concentration of state-funded school procurement through the Education Funding Agency (EFA), have driven standardisation, squeezing out creativity, he adds. ‘The brief coming from government isn’t wishing any architectural input apart from technical drawing.’

’A good teacher could do a good job with bad tools, but with good tools they will do something much more’

Mirchandani says: ‘We believe profoundly that good design is a very valuable part of delivering good education. A good teacher could do a good job with bad tools, but with good tools they will do something much more. A great environment can help to raise aspirations and enthuse both students and teachers.’ 

Despite his own bemusement at the forced conversion of state schools into academies, Architecture PLB will continue to take a ‘very pragmatic view’, Mirchandani says. ‘We find ways to work with the system; it will always be thus.’

There is little evidence of a serious effort to raise design standards on the part of ministers. Neither architecture nor design are mentioned once in the 125 pages of the draft legislation.

The mass conversion of schools to academies might, however, drive innovative design as schools federate into increasingly powerful multi-academy trusts, according to education consultants.

‘Those multi-academy trusts may have a particular view of how they think education is delivered,’ says Mairi Johnson, who was design director at the EFA before moving to Aecom to be global leader for the education sector. ‘In most cases it will be pretty mainstream but in some there may be room for innovation.’

For instance, federated trusts that opt for the ‘kinetic’ model of teaching – where pupils are encouraged to learn from experience – would want a distinctly different kind of school design. ‘If the multi-academy trust wanted to take that approach and to develop facilities accordingly, they might have the clout to influence the centralised procurement of the EFA,’ says Johnson, who was design director at the EFA before moving to Aecom.

Such clout is not in the gift of individual councils, adds Johnson, while continued pressure on the EFA’s budget, means it is unlikely to yield to the influence of architects alone. ‘It is under pressure from ministers to spend as little as possible, and with pressure on the NHS, the argument that schools should be a bit nicer is not going to cut it.’

With austerity still on its interminable march, and ministers showing little interest in design, architects’ fate in the education sector will lie in the lap of the increasingly influential academy trusts – however unpalatable their state-backed ascendency may appear.

Building Schools for the Future (2005-2010)

Schools completed: 96

Refurbished: 13

Projects axed by the coalition: 700

Source: Department for Education


Priority Schools Programme (2011-present day)

Schools completed:19

Started: 60

Source: AMA Research


England’s primary and secondary schools at a glance

Number of council-run schools: 18,000

Number of academies: 5,170

Number of free schools: 304

Source: LGA/ Department for Education


ABC of the education sector

Free schools
State-funded academies that can be set up without the need to consult local authorities. Some 300 have opened in England. The Conservative election manifesto pledged to open 500 more.

State schools that are independent of local authorities but accountable to the Department for Education. Originally intended to turn around failing schools in deprived areas, they are now destined to replace all council-run schools.


Adam Clark of Halliday Clark Architects

’Whether the conversion of all schools to academies will create more or less work for architects will depend very much on the method of procurement chosen. If, as at the moment, procurement is principally through contractor-led team frameworks then we should maintain our previous successful record. The methods available, however, must be made clear to clients and architects alike. Architects need be informed by central government, what has been said to schools in terms of advice, so that they can adjust their marketing and targeting approach accordingly.

’It is difficult to tell if the drive towards academies will be good for school design. As with all building projects, budget, programme and the client’s engagement in the process are such key factors to making good school design. Having done many academies previously, it is establishing the schools priorities which is critical to managing a successful design, putting the budget into the things that matter to the individual school.’

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Chris Roche

    Are bigger schools better? Are schools that offer shared facilities for 11-18 year olds safe for our children? Is pupil density an issue affecting teenagers mental health? Do Architects care about these issues, or is Design in a limited physical sense the priimary issue?

    Chris Roche / Founder 11.04
    Architect of the $100,000 School Programme for Nigeria

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