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Will architects be building schoools in the future?

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Any government that cuts BSF spending can expect huge political and legal backlashes, says Ed Dorrell

Some months ago I chaired a conference in London on school design. It immediately became apparent, to someone who has been detached from the world of architecture for the past three years, just how dependent architects have become on the public purse. Everyone wanted to be part of Building Schools for the Future (BSF), Britain’s biggest-ever school investment programme.

Unfortunately, last week’s announcement that six authorities would share £420 million in BSF funds felt like the end of an era. The AJ predicted that the ‘lucky half dozen’ would be the last areas to receive funds before the next election, and it is no longer credible to predict that the £55 billion programme will be completed in full. But how can it be wound down, and what might replace it?

Shadow schools minister Nick Gibb has said that only schools that have reached ‘financial close’ with a preferred bidder will definitely see their projects completed. He also believes BSF is ‘a hugely wasteful approach to procuring new buildings’.

There have been inefficiencies and there were some damn ugly schools, especially in the early waves. Now, thanks to improved management, and wise counsel from CABE, the programme is going strong. Huge problems await any government that cuts BSF, including a political backlash from parents and a legal backlash from contractors.

The education system will be left with a postcode lottery where some local authorities have sparkling new schools, while others make do with buildings from the 1960s, or the 19th century. Also in limbo is the government’s longer-term plan to refit the nation’s primary schools.

If BSF is too costly to continue, but too politically painful to kill off, perhaps there is a third way. The future could see an emphasis on the refurbishment and expansion of existing schools. This would also have the benefit of including small practices, who have been left out of BSF thanks to the sheer size of the programme.

  • Ed Dorrell is news editor of the Times Educational Supplement. He was news editor of the AJ from 2004-07
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