School design cannot avoid being a political issue, says Paul Finch
You don’t hear much from Michael Gove these days on the subject of school design. Perhaps his former views have been modified by the experience of his own children going to school: readers may remember his claim that it would be perfectly acceptable to turn redundant supermarkets into places of learning, but neither he nor his family have been to a school of any such nature.
Why he thought it was appropriate for other families is mysterious, especially given the preponderance of privately educated ministers around the Cabinet table. Perhaps the idea that it might look hypocritical finally entered his head.
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Nor has Mr Gove repeated his claim that architects have been ‘creaming off’ money from PFI projects, possibly because it has become apparent that the incompetent organisations that really have benefited are now seeing chickens coming home to roost. In fact the sky is darkened by them. Carillion couldn’t fulfil its PFI contractual obligations, while the joke that used to be known as Group 4 Security, now the whizzier G4S, has proved itself utterly incompetent at running jails.
Leaving aside the sorry story of how the Treasury botched PFI contracts, the question remains as to the relationship between the provision of buildings as a form of infrastructure (housing, schools, hospitals), the design of those buildings, and the anticipated outcome of what has been created. Can it be true that, for example, educational outcomes have absolutely nothing to do with the built (and landscape) environments of schools?
The Govian proposition – that well-designed schools would mean nothing if the teachers were no good – is difficult to argue with. Moreover, the reverse argument, that good teachers will be able to achieve good results even in poor buildings, can be justified on the basis of history and, to an extent, logic. However, this sort of binary analysis ignores the realities of everyday school life – retention rates among teachers in appalling environments, for example. If you are good, why would you prefer to teach in a dump as opposed to a well-designed new (or extended) environment?
In other words, the argument of architectural determinists, who make exaggerated claims for the direct effect of environments on behaviour, are not to be dismissed by an equally false proposition that environment has nothing at all to do with outcomes. Indeed there is plenty of evidence from the USA, where standard assessment tests make comparisons between schools across the country easier than here, that where you are comparing like with like in terms of socio-economic background of pupils and qualifications of teachers, better architecture makes an identifiable difference to academic success.
People who resist the idea of ‘evidence-based design’ never want to discuss the merits of designing based on non-evidence, or indeed to discuss the outcomes of poor design. They simply dispute the idea that architecture and design can make a difference. But when you look at where they live, and in what, and where they send their children to school, you find a different story. Who wants to live, or learn, in a dump?
Yet at worst, that is what they condemn others to do. The current government has no apparent interest in architecture, nor its benefits, so it is up to the profession itself to take the argument to the public. It is time for the best British school architecture to be exhibited and celebrated at the RIBA and in venues across the land, allowing local authorities to show off (or be shamed by) what they have commissioned for their communities.
It is time to show all parents what they should demand for their children – and for those who teach them.