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Poll: architects say new schools fail to make the grade

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Laura Mark reports on the results of an online poll of AJ readers which reveals a profession deeply unhappy with the government’s Priority School Building Programme

More than 90 per cent of architects are concerned about the future of school design and almost half say the last school they built was not good enough.Launched as part of the AJ’s #greatschools coverage, the poll of nearly 230 architects, assistants and architectural technologists paints a bleak picture of the current school building programme.

Responding to the poll results, Clare Wright of Wright & Wright Architects says: ‘The current schools programme [creates] substandard designs and buildings. The rebuilding and poor morale engendered will cost a fortune.’

Architects point the finger at the current procurement and funding methods, with almost universal condemnation of the coalition government’s Priority School Building Programme (PSBP) – a standardised system aimed at reducing average build budget by £6 million. Only 5 per cent of respondents believe PSBP results in good teaching environments, and 84 per cent say the current funding levels are ‘not adequate’.

schools graph

Sixty per cent of those surveyed say they are ‘very worried’ about the next generation of schools, and 44 per cent admit they are unhappy with the last school they built.

Seven per cent even say they are ‘worried’ about school spaces they have created.

The findings come as yet another blow to the low-cost school building programme which, in a one-off evidence session of the Common’s Education Committee last week was widely criticised by the RIBA, school leaders and construction firms for producing little more than ‘functional boxes’ (AJ 26.03.15).

The RIBA said PSBP had led to design compromises in public areas of school buildings and was going ‘against best practice in school design.’

Jayne Bird of Nicholas Hare Architects highlighted a key concern with PSBP. Talking about her recently completed Stratford School Academy, she said: ‘The school was previously part of the BSF programme, so their aspirations were beyond what could be delivered through the PSBP.

‘The programme is all about  function and adequacy – meeting the need of the school estate – so there is very little room for embellishment.

‘We have done the best we can, and consider the new build an improvement on the previous facilities.’

In comparison, the survey found that the previous administration’s Building Schools for the Future (BSF) initiative was rated much more highly  – 46 per cent of respondents felt that, of all the funding programmes, this had created the best learning environments. The popular but ultimately financially unsustainable £55 billion programme was scrapped in 2010, causing more than 700 school projects to stall and sparking an outcry from the profession.

One respondent says: ‘There is very little opportunity to create inspiring spaces to teach and learn under PSBP. The opportunity for the most inspiring spaces to teach and learn was most likely to occur with BSF.’

Another comments: ‘BSF was flabby and lessons could have been learnt but the Conservatives cut all the good work and replaced it with a far inferior model. Somewhere in the middle would have been better.’

PSBP is all about cheapest price

Walters & Cohen director Michál Cohen adds: ‘PSBP is all about cheapest price, rather than best value. Under BSF we engaged in the process of understanding what makes good school environments and real consultation. There was room for innovation and interpretation. We could add value to the process.’

In contrast, Stephen Beechley, group strategy director of contractor Wates Group, is less dismissive. Commenting at the recent parliamentary session on the quality of what has been built through the priority school drive, he said: ‘In comparison with other programmes, such as BSF, the [PSBP] schools perform very well.

‘There is an important point to make about quality. The quality levels for PSBP schools and BSF schools are similar.’

It is not a viewed shared by the profession.

According to respondents, the current programme forces architects to compromise on design solutions, effectively throwing out important lessons learnt through BSF. Many complain that they have recently been asked to reduce the size of outdoor, corridor and breakout areas, derogate from sustainability and daylighting requirements, and cut the number of toilets.

Robin Nicholson, senior practice partner at Cullinan Studios, says: ‘Breaking the rules is bad all round but we now know how to design toilets to prevent bullying …so reducing the numbers of toilets and limiting circulation will take us straight back into bad behaviour and bullying that BSF had begun to correct.’

The areas most compromised are those where non-timetabled activities take place

Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios partner Helen Roberts agrees. ‘The areas most compromised,’ she says, ‘are those where non-timetabled activities take place: circulation spaces; inappropriately sized dining spaces; areas for lockers and offices. All of these help to make well-functioning school environments and, without them, schools suffer.’

schools graph

Architects also maintain that schools built under PSBP are also not being built to last, according to the poll. Eighteen per cent of respondents said the lifespan of the schools they delivered was less than 20 years, and fewer than half (43 per cent) said they were building schools to last more than 30 years under PSBP.

This is not down to poor-quality materials. Rather, respondents say, their lifespan is being compromised by inflexible design, meaning schools will struggle to adapt to changes in class sizes, teaching methods and government policy.

One respondent says: ‘As the area [allowed under PSBP] is so strict, the flexibility and adaptability of the buildings is harmed in the long run.’

Another commented: ‘Structurally, they will be fine but educationally there is no room for flexibility or change.’

Nicholson adds: ‘Short-life buildings are by definition unsustainable. They should be aiming for a lifespan of a minimum 100 years, with built-in future-proofing for rising temperatures [caused by global warming].’

Further comments

Gavin Elliot, head of education, BDP
‘Having been heavily involved in the BSF and Academies programmes it was clear to us that, following the James Review, the PSBP programme would not offer the same opportunities to create high quality ‘transformational’ learning environments as had been previously possible, and therefore we took the decision not to pro-actively pursue PSBP.

‘However we have have continued to design schools in both England and Scotland - delivered through different funding and procurement mechanisms - where we felt our knowledge, skill and creativity would be welcomed, and would also make a difference to the people who really count, the students.

‘Our work on the Eastwood & Lasswade Pathfinder Schools for the Scottish Futures Trust, and more recently, St John Bosco Arts College in Liverpool clearly demonstrate that it is possible to deliver high quality transformational schools on very tight budgets.

‘However, experience suggests that to achieve this requires a close collaboration between the end user clients and the designers, and a willingness to allow the design teams innovate - with the objective of delivering more for less.

‘As currently constituted the PSBP programme does not permit either, so perhaps it is inevitable that the results are seldom satisfactory.’

Mark Dudek, architect, Mark Dudek Associates
‘I believe that architects have only the best intentions when they accept a schools commission. Designing for a school is very challenging, for the most obvious reasons. There can be no more difficult a client, or I should say client squad, than what you get with a school. On the one hand you have Government whether it is local or national pushing for the cheapest result, and on the other you have a school community pushing for as much as they can get. The school knows that the better the design, the more switched on the pupils will be to the learning and social function of the school. Good design really matters. 

‘Like a multi headed serpent, this can be a lethal mix, if you don’t get it right. However it is for your own children as much as the children who will ultimately use the building, and the cerebral nature of this task draws on the architect’s vocational duty to deliver as much as they can. There is a realisation that this building will be the container of generations of people’s most formative experiences. If we design a hostile environment, we become hostile ourselves.

‘With PSBP, it is clear that these building will be of very poor quality. And children will know this.

Politicians must be very careful to build for the future

‘They are today very aware of what constitutes a good environment, and one which is really special. For example, they only have to visit their local Westfield shopping centre to see state of the art in interior space making of a very contemporary nature. Politicians must be very careful to build for the future, as well as being accountants for deficit reduction, and the next set of austerity statistics. For those with short memories, cast your minds back to the 1950s and 1960s when ‘bog standard’ schools were built all over the country from a template which was very similar to the PSBP model.  What a disaster that proved to be. The so called secondary modern was secondary in every way. For those who attended those institutions, the poverty of the environment made them places where it was easy to choose failure, and very difficult to choose to be educated. Check out the now demolished Tulse Hill Secondary School. Truly scary and we risk revisiting all of that yet again.’ 

Adam Clark, director, Halliday Clark Architects
‘It is perhaps inevitable that BSF comes out on top in the survey.

‘With the level of funding available through BSF and the research that went into it, there was certainly scope for new ideas and an encouragement for Architects to create something over and above just basic accommodation.

‘My view however, is that in some cases these higher cost indices were not always required or appropriate for certain schools creating in some cases a level of opulence which didn’t sit comfortably with best use of the Taxpayers money.

‘As architects we have a duty to prove best value to our clients no matter what the project may be. This value may be best generated by a higher or lower cost level dependent upon each individual site and brief.

There is no doubt that with the cost indices at their current level that in some cases schemes will be built based purely on a numbers exercise using the contractors template from their previous project being made to fit on a new site. This has become building not architecture!

‘The EFA have to recognise the true value of an architect if we are to move things forward. This has to be projected however not as designer who in the eyes of the funder is there to create cost but as the member of a design team who is trained to use intelligent and lateral thinking to use the right budget to create more for the money in both use of space and quality of design. Funding for schools, under whichever new title they come with, must not be just a quick fix for now, but should be used wisely to produce architecture for the benefit pupils and staff for many decades to come.’

Poll: architects say new schools fail to make the grade

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Readers' comments (1)

  • AJ great for highlighting this atrocious lack of quality and social value with the governments PSBP.

    http://www.projectcompass.co.uk/publications/EFA_Issues_Report_Final.pdf evidences EFA’s anti-competitive procurement supply chain.
    Design, quality, engagement, choice, & competition required to deliver excellent schools can’t be delivered in a context where the EFA’s procurement is also centrally captured, controlled and driven by these anti-competitive construction practices. The problem extends well beyond design, brief and budget.

    The EFA PSBP programme is dysfunctional and should be scrapped

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