Hannah Jones: School leaders have an immense task and opportunity in front of them

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The Independent Online

Over the past 10 years there have been significant improvements in the quality of teaching and learning, yet the quality of our school buildings are lagging behind.

There is clear link between the condition of school buildings, the quality of school design and levels of pupil attainment. However, the majority of existing schools were built before 1976 and are seen by leaders and students as increasingly unsuitable for modern teaching and learning.

Building Schools for the Future (BSF), the largest single capital investment programme in over 50 years, is aimed at rebuilding and remodelling all 3,500 state secondary schools. BSF is not, however, just a school buildings programme. Its key objective is to enable schools and Local Authorities to renew and reorganise in order to have the greatest possible impact on learning.

Expectations of BSF are high with the majority of headteachers believing that it will support educational transformation. NCSL's 2007 research – "School Leader Perceptions of BSF" – shows that leaders feel that BSF is a much-needed investment that will make a fundamental change to education. While there are a range of views within this spectrum – from the celebratory "it's a wonderful thing" to a more restrained "it's a necessary thing" – most see it as an improving force.

Yet management and delivery of such educational transformation with its high levels of complexity requires capacity building and the acquisition of knowledge, skills and expertise at local authority and school level.

Real and meaningful consultation and effective relationships between schools and local authorities are key to successfully delivering transformation through BSF. Headteachers and governors are at the centre of the BSF process, they are the gatekeepers in terms of consultation taking place both at their own schools and across all schools in the local authority.

NCSL has seen this managed successfully within local authorities and, although the PricewaterhouseCoopers first evaluation of BSF reported that "only a quarter of headteachers agreed that BSF clustering arrangements had enabled them to plan more effectively to meet the wider needs of the area", we are seeing a shift in understanding with BSF, its processes and its management. Local Authorities and school leaders are building capacity for BSF and beginning discussions on key policy areas much earlier. This transparency in relation to information on BSF and robust communication strategies between schools and Local Authorities will provide the strong foundations for transformation.

Headteachers and governors must be consulted by the Local Authority in relation to a range of issues as part of the development of Strategy for Change and through subsequent stages of BSF, including outline business case and selection of preferred bidder. Alongside this role, school leaders will be heavily involved in building their own capacity within school and planning the consultation required with staff, pupils, parents and the wider community to develop a future vision and plan for change.

School leaders and their communities have an immense task and opportunity in front of them. The majority are optimistic and realistic in the time and resource that is required. To quote a member of NCSL's BSF Headteacher Think Tank: "The potential spend on an institution could be up to £25m. Twenty-five working days for each institution's leadership team to devote to strategic thinking and development of the project may be a considerable investment at the time but one which will pay off through 25 years of exceptional learning opportunities for up to 25,000 future learners". Where this capacity, energy and time has been put in by communities the impact is soon realised when the new environment is lived in by its students and staff.

We have many emerging examples of excellent practice – where the school environment has been designed around the ethos, values and vision of a school; where leaders have successfully managed the change in culture and practice so that the new environment can be used to its full potential; and where the spaces work for students.

So we need to continue to share this good practice with individual schools but we also need to support the progression of collaboration and consultation of leaders across local authorities if BSF is to really meet its key objective. BSF is about more than bricks and mortar – it's about transforming education by renewing our estate in order to have the greatest possible impact on pupil performance.

Hannah Jones is a special projects director leading the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) Programme at the National College for School Leadership (NCSL). For more information on the work of NCSL with Local Authorities and leaders involved in BSF please visit www.ncsl.org.uk/bsf or the BSF website http://bsf.ncsl.org.uk