Learning curves: The quest for the perfect school design

Architects, builders, local authorities and communities are finally pulling together to design their way to better education. But will the recession blow their best efforts off course?
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The Independent Online

The 50th school in the massive Building Schools for the Future (BSF) renewal programme has just opened. Sedgehill School in Lewisham will be followed by 200 schools over the next couple of years and 1,000 are currently in the pipeline.

The first indications that these new schools can change lives for the better are starting to appear. Last summer's GCSE results in the four BSF schools where they could be counted were up 10 per cent against a national average of 2 per cent. And staying-on rates are going up in new schools, while exclusions, vandalism and bullying are all in decline.

After a very rocky start, the much-delayed £45bn programme is making progress. Procurement procedures have been simplified, design criteria tightened and last autumn the annual Excellence in BSF awards were launched, with the Michael Tippett School, a south London special school, winning the prize for most inspirational and successful BSF project.

However some major problems remain, not least the banking crisis. Several schemes built under the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) – in which banks or consortiums lend cash for public projects for a 25-year period and the Government pays it back in instalments – are being held up or cut back. This puts the BSF project at risk, although recently some banks have offered small amounts of finance.

Furthermore, it is becoming clear that successful school renewal may be even more about people than money and buildings. The key to any project, it seems, is how well the partners work together, and how deeply everyone comes to understand the needs of tomorrow's schoolchildren.

"This is a very ambitious programme and we have to ensure it is a lasting transformational one," says Tim Byles, chief executive of Partnerships for Schools, which is responsible for BSF and is helping local authorities and schools find new ways to share their experiences through workshops, conferences, websites and open days.

"We are now looking much more at the needs of overall education authorities, so there has to be a wider coming together to meet the objectives. We need to get people thinking about the whole thing," says Byles.

In Nottingham, where a £90m BSF programme is underway, a radical "visioning" exercise is being used to ensure that heads, teachers and pupils are fully involved in the design process. Schools are given funds to run the two-term programme under which an education manager in the Local Education Partnership and an external creative consultant come in and run workshops with teachers and pupils where everyone puts their minds to what their future school should look like.

The city's BSF education team also keeps in close contact with the design team. As a result, architects speak knowledgeably about new ways of teaching and learning, schools feel a powerful part the rebuilding process, and even the workmen on site can explain how the new unisex toilet blocks will cut down on bullying and bad behaviour.

However such co-operation is not widespread and Ian Fordham, deputy chief executive of the British Council for School Environments, says there is an urgent need to improve collaboration. "An area of continued concern is the amount of time educationalists and architects have to work together. While there is willingness from both professions and real expertise to be shared, the current process does not allow enough time for them to work together to the extent required. We've seen some fantastically designed schools, but they tend to happen despite the limitations of the process, because architects and others are willing to put in an enormous amount of additional time and energy to deliver great schools," he says.

We must also gather more evidence of what works, he says. "We need a rigorous programme of research and development which joins up all aspects of new schools: educational effectiveness, build quality and impact on the wider community, and a quick and effective mechanism by which we can share and embed that learning for all who are involved in the programme."

Some observers believe greater innovation will be prompted by faster, more streamlined procurement procedures which will make it easier for smaller players to bid for contracts. Byles believes this process is already happening, with 25 bidding consortia as opposed to 21 six months ago. But others fear the squeezed timetable will make it harder for newcomers to get off the starting blocks. "Small firms will need to employ more people to meet the deadlines and they won't be able to afford to do that," says Diane Haigh, director of architecture and design review for the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (Cabe).

The BSF design process is also being amended, after a review by Cabe found many designs for new schools to be inadequate, often poorly sited and with external spaces dominated by car parks. Educationalists are to join a panel that will discuss the designs.

"We will see the introduction of this minimum design standard from next April," says Haigh. She hopes it will underline the need for consortia to take design very seriously.

But Philip Watson, head of education at Atkins, the design and engineering consultancy, says the loudest outcry about school design has been around the schools funded by private finance initiatives from about five years ago. "Much of the BSF stuff is pretty damned good," he says.

He worked with HML Architects on school projects in Sheffield and Barnsley. "We're incredibly proud of the work we've done," he says. "Each one of the schools is a great design; much, much better than the authority expected. But it will take a while for the general public to be aware of this."

However he sees a need to slow the rebuilding process. The timescale, he says, is punishing – "the burnout of designers is a reality" – and he believes that, with 3,500 schools to be completed, off-the-peg solutions for sports halls, toilet blocks and classrooms might have to be used in the future. "I'm not saying we should have a pattern book, but it may be that we need to embrace some sort of standardisation," he says. "We shouldn't be shy of this, we should embrace it as an opportunity."

But there are many who wonder just how many of those schools will ultimately make it into the programme. The worsening financial climate – or a change of government – could put funding in jeopardy.