"It has transformed our learning and teaching". "Pupils feel valued, and this has improved their self-esteem and will improve outcomes". "We have a set of learning spaces that will enable a generation to prepare for the 21st century". These are some of the comments made by head teachers in a survey carried out for Building, the weekly magazine I edit.
The purpose of the survey was to gauge the response of the teaching profession to the Government's Building Schools for the Future initiative – the £55bn programme to transform every secondary school in the country. There are bound to be cases of where pupils taught in dilapidated buildings come out with a string of good GCSEs and some that are taught in new classrooms where academic results are nothing to shout about. But, to return to our survey, four out of five heads who responded agreed strongly that attainment was linked to the physical state of the school. Nearly all felt improving buildings had a positive effect on pupils.
We are in the midst of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to improve the quality of learning and young people's lives. Since the initiative was proposed in 2004, 146 secondary schools or academies are now open. Around a third of the 3,500 secondary schools in England are involved in the BSF programme in 96 local authorities. After starting as a slow learner, Building Schools for the Future is firing on all cylinders.
To its credit, the Government has come up with some joined-up thinking. The academies, which had a lot of froth in their budgets, have been integrated with BSF, which should make for more efficient procurement. Meanwhile the Government's design watchdog, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (Cabe) has been brought in to exercise more control over design so the schools should be of a high standard. Indeed, some have a string of awards to their name. There are plans and money to pilot zero-carbon schools as the need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the school estate gathers pace. This will be one of the key themes at the forthcoming Building Schools Exhibition and Conference (BSEC).
Carbon dioxide emissions in English schools make up 15 per cent of the country's emissions. Every school is to have a display meter to measure energy use and to act as a tool to engage with children about energy consumption and climate change. There's a way to go, but we're making excellent progress.
But just when the problem child that was the BSF programme has pulled up its socks, we have the prospect of a wholesale change in the teaching staff. We don't know who will win the election – or what will happen to public spending. Though neither of the main parties has said they will put the break on school building, there is uncertainty as we face £175bn of public debt. In fact, 82 per cent of the respondents in our survey said they were worried about cuts to school building programmes after the next election.
But before we go back to the underinvestment of the Eighties and Nineties, let's hope whoever is in power does a decent cost–benefit analysis. Hundreds of firms have invested heavily in gearing towards the school building programme – thousands of jobs depend on it across the built environment. To dim the vision now would be to let down a generation of schoolchildren. Investment in the school estate is a down payment on a better, more competitive future. To cut back now would be a false economy.
The BSEC exhibition is free to attend at London's Excel Centre, 24–25 February, www.buildingschools.co.uk