July 2010 will live in the memory of all those in education – headteachers, teachers, pupils, parents and local authorities – who were involved in the exciting task of building a new generation of schools fit to prepare children for life in the third millennium and a digital age.
Weeks after the General Election, new secretary of state Michael Gove announced he was calling a halt to what he described as the “wasteful and bureaucratic” Building Schools for the Future (BSF) scheme.
Instead, he set up an independent review of school capital spending under the chairmanship of David Cameron’s old Eton school pal Sebastian James, CEO of Dixons.
Fast forward to 2013 and we now have the Priority Schools Building Programme (PSBP). Based on the James Review, it includes a complete set of baseline designs a million miles away from those constructed under BSF.
The three prefabricated designs each cost a third less than schools built in recent years and while they are not mandatory, schools spending more than the cost of these suggested designs (£1,113 per square metre) must fund the extra themselves.
Infamously, the designs drew criticism when they were unveiled by the Education Funding Agency (EFA) in the autumn. The block-like “kit of parts” is intended to be constructed with a set cost and area requirement. The Royal Institute of British Architects listed five key criticisms of the designs, including a lack of long-term sustainability and value.
Also, under the PSBP, hundreds of headteachers have been left disappointed. When the government revealed the list of run-down schools which are to receive funding –?only 261 schools from a total of almost 600 which applied had been successful.
It is in this climate that 150 people last week attended a Westminster Education Forum in London entitled “The Future of School Building”.
Among the speakers at the event, Darren Talbot, the schools lead for Europe at Davis Langdon, which was charged with carrying out a full “property data survey” for the EFA, suggested that given the reduced budgets for capital expenditure, schools need to think hard about whether a new build would “allow staff to deliver a good education” given that the space parameters of the PSBP will “be at the lower end of the scale”.
However, architect Michál Cohen from Walters & Cohen Architects, reminded delegates that having spent part of her career researching how “pedagogy defines the built environment”, she was concerned that the baseline designs will have a negative impact on social space, incidental learning and breakout spaces – and that there was no consideration allowed in the budget for outdoor learning spaces.
Many eyes at the event were on Peter Lauener, EFA chief executive, and Sarah Healey, director of the Department for Education’s Education Funding Group.
Ms Healey repeated the government’s views of BSF as being “profligate, lengthy and costly” and went on to say that the PSBP faced the double whammy of a “tight capital settlement and rising school numbers”.
Mr Lauener said that although no new school has yet to be built, the PSBP pipeline is stuffed with projects ready for the diggers and delivery of standardised designs.
He is also confident that PSBP will deliver “fit for purpose” schools and value for money. He might be convinced but I am not sure many delegates were.
Sadly no mention from either of the DfE big guns about the millions of children studying in new schools as a result of BSF or of the disappointment and depressed expectations of those communities whose schemes had been scrapped without notice.
One delegate Adrian James, who works with hearing impaired and autistic children, voiced his view that the PSPB baseline designs fail to meet the DfE’s own inclusivity and accessibility policy.
Furthermore, Dr Neil Hopkin, head of Rosendale Primary School in south London, suggested that the DfE, some architects, the construction industry and indeed the Westminster Education Forum itself had got the programme completely the wrong way round.
Rather than starting with “what and how many buildings should we build?” we should start with “what will learning be like in the future (especially using wireless and mobile technologies), what will teachers need to do to support that learning, where will they be located, and finally what buildings will be required?”
For my part, I pointed out that my grandchildren will leave the very schools about to be built in 2026, 2027 and 2029. Those schools will likely have virtually no pens, paper, desktop PCs, markers, ICT suites or classrooms with lines of desks, printers or servers. However, pupils will probably have their own tablet or wearable devices, voice recognition, gesture and touch control, learning analytics, online assessments, 3D screens and augmented and virtual reality – with access to learning resources and support 24/7.
Learning will be context-related, not content-driven, where co-construction, creativity, collaboration and communication would be more valued than the regurgitation of content by higher education and employers.
I hope the powers that be listen to these messages. Otherwise our children will spend their childhoods in buildings designed for an industrial era when they already inhabit a digital age. This would be a tragedy for our children and UK plc as well as a waste of public money.SecEd
Further informationFor more on the PSBP and school capital spending, visit www.education.gov.uk/schools/adminandfinance/schoolscapital
Bob Harrison is a teacher and former principal. He is a consultant to the National College and an education advisor with Toshiba.
CAPTION: Build your own school: The ‘kit’ school designs have been criticised by architects