Building excellence: A multibillion-pound scheme to upgrade schools is presenting a set of challenges

Building Schools for the Future (BSF) is perhaps the most ambitious known scheme of its kind. Launched in 2004 by the then Department for Education and Skills, £2.5bn-£3bn of capital investment is being spent on the programme each year to renovate or rebuild every school in England.

The intention of the scheme is to ensure every child goes to school in a building suitable for 21st-century teaching methods and technology, and to make the buildings suitable for use by the whole community. The 200th school is due to be completed this summer.

Such an ambitious building programme brings challenges, including for those schools that have not yet had improvements, such as Willowfield School in Waltham Forest. Although the local area was identified as being in the first wave of building work, of the seven secondary schools in the area Willowfield is one of two not to have been included in the work so far.

"We are now in wave five with the rest of the Waltham Forest schools," says the headteacher, Eve Wilson. "A site for our school has now been identified, although not finally purchased, but the current date for completion of our new school is 2012 or even 2013. Until then, Willowfield will remain in its present buildings – a hotchpotch of Victorian, Sixties and Eighties architecture. It's nobody's fault, but there is a lack of equity about this, which is hard to swallow.

"Schools are, of course, much more than their buildings, and I remain very proud of the work done by students and staff in our school, but being surrounded by shiny new schools has presented us with challenges." she adds.

For schools undergoing work, there are challenges too. Stephen Smith is the head teacher of Jack Taylor School in Camden, an all-ages community special school. As part of programme, Jack Taylor will close down and be merged with another school to become a 232-place community special school on the site of the other school, which will be demolished and rebuilt.

"I was involved, along with governors and senior staff, with the early parts of the design and it took up virtually every Thursday afternoon for the year, working with architects to put together a design spec. That's just the brief. When we got to competitive dialogue [the tendering process], it took me out of school a lot more," says Smith. This means staff can be doing two jobs at once, working on the plans for the new school while continuing their duties in the current one. "It's clearly worth it as it's going to lead to some fabulous new schools, but the flip side of that is it takes a lot out of what you're doing at school so there is the issue of who's minding the shop."

This is an issue that Simon Jones, a director at the property and management consultancy Capita Symonds, which helps design and build education infrastructure, takes seriously. "It's all about how resources are managed by the local authorities. There need to be arrangements to cover time and to manage resources." What will help schools to overcome this kind of challenge in future construction projects will be first-wave schools, such as Smith's, sharing their experiences with schools that are beginning the process.

"There could be more emphasis on how information is shared between local authorities. Rather than re-inventing the wheel, local authorities need to share their knowledge with each other. Partnership for Schools [the non-departmental public body set up to deliver BSF] tries to help local authorities share best practice. However, councils can help themselves more," says Jones. Linked with this is sharing knowledge about procurement costs: "If you're going to save procurement costs, you need to be clever about how you share information."

Whereas Smith's new school will be on a different site, many schools face the challenge of how to plan building work around normal school activities. Tony Hartney is the head teacher at Gladesmore Community School in Tottenham, which was in the first wave of BSF. The comprehensive school with 1,250 pupils had a new maths block and a new auditorium, and the school has been remodelled to try to make classrooms more spacious. "The big challenge is to ensure that the work is done without disrupting the children's education," he says.

The solution for Gladesmore has been to schedule the noisy work for outside the school day, and to include builders in all aspects of school life, from assemblies to taking part in the school's world-record attempt to have the most people taking part in "head, shoulders, knees and toes" at any one time.

This is in contrast to Walthamstow School for Girls, in an adjoining borough, which moved its 900 pupils and 100 staff to a different site for four terms while their building work took place. Its head teacher, Rachel Macfarlane, says: "One of the things that is a big advantage of moving off site is you move back into a completed building as a whole school."

Doing this allows schools to undergo something of a reinvention. "You don't just get a new school, you get a whole new ethos as well. You can change completely the way that a school is governed, the atmosphere and the environment," says Jones. He thinks some of the early issues around the BSF programme have now been addressed: "The process by which local authorities now join the programme has been improved, and the remaining local authorities waiting to join the programme have to pass the 'readiness to deliver' process. It's more rigorous to ensure only those local authorities that are ready take part."

But working out how to make the bidding process less costly remains an issue. "Bid costs are still high," says Jones. "We need to look at how we can reduce these. They cost £3m-£4m, and that's a lot of money for the losing bidder. The successful bidder recoups that money in the schemes, so we don't want unnecessary money going to do this." But, he says, perhaps the biggest challenge facing all sectors is anticipating what changes there might be after the general election.

"There's nervousness within the industry on how BSF will be affected post-election, whichever party comes to power. We know it's all predicated on budgets, but we'd like to understand the direction of travel from all the parties."

What makes a good school?

A good relationship between students and teachers, and between the year groups.

Harriet Cook, Year 13, Northampton School for Girls

A good school is one where everyone can learn, no matter what their ability, and feel able to approach the teacher. I would rather be in a school with friendly people and poor facilities than a school with nasty people and top facilities.

Chloe Toumazi, Year 9, Willowfield School, Walthamstow.

An amazing school captures the uninhibited enthusiasm that so many 11-year-olds (Year 7) have when they come to secondary school, and does not beat it out of them by the time they are 14.

Lauren Morbey, English teacher and deputy head of sixth form at The John Warner School, Hoddesdon.

A good school is well-resourced, values and supports all pupils and staff and their achievements, and is democratically linked into local people and other nearby schools.

Lucy Anderson. Parent of children aged 15 and 13 at Acland Burghley School, Tufnell Park.

A good school is somewhere where there is no bullying, no racism and that has an environment where everyone can learn in a supported way.

Mustafa Farah, Year 10, Willowfield School, Walthamstow.

A good school is about ensuring that children make the most progress they can academically, but also that they develop well as all-round citizens – so, teaching empathy, respect, tolerance, being forward-looking and looking at what they can do rather than what they can't do.

Tony Hartney, Head teacher, Gladesmore Community School, Tottenham.

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