Stephen Heppell: 'What sounded radical one year is widely adopted the next'

Professor of new media environments at Bournemouth University and chairman of BSEC
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The Independent Online

It has been a remarkable year since we last gathered at The Building Schools Exhibition and Conference (BSEC) to debate how best to roll out a new generation of ambitious 21st-century learning spaces.

Yesterday's cautious conservatism has been brushed aside: doing more of the same a little better has finally been recognised as a high-risk strategy. To hear this emerging consensus is no surprise to those who have been at previous BSEC events. BSEC has become the place to network and talk about the complexities of designing modern learning spaces.

The UK is facing unprecedented competition from around the world as the quality of education improves, more and more people enter the global workforce with enhanced skills and new economies expand.

The Government's £45bn Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme to renew or rebuild every school in England has been under way since 2003 and represents a huge investment of capital.

But make no mistake: other countries are also in the throes of revisiting educational practice and policy in radical and exciting ways. The language of 21st-century learning includes the notion of "learning elsewhere", in small communities of learners with large blocks of time.

For instance, some countries are starting to build small secondary schools for groups of around 125 pupils. We can learn from this example and adapt it to our situation in the UK.

With the retail sector in meltdown in the post-Christmas slough, we are seeing a huge number of empty premises at the heart of our communities – either empty or temporarily housing charities or pawnbrokers. The notion of a collapsing town centre arising phoenix-like as a town campus, with a mix of learning and business at its heart is rather seductive – and attainable. Remember, what sounded a bit radical and brave at BSEC one year, turns out to be mainstream and widely adopted the next.

This and much more will be discussed at the BSEC event, the only event that focuses solely on the construction, maintenance and design of schools in the UK. Keynote speaker Jim Knight MP will be announcing the new national programme for the next stages of the BSF programme. Other highlights include Johnny Ball, Becta ambassador, Tim Byles, chief executive for Partnership for Schools and Sir John Sorrell.

No other event has the support of all the major educational bodies – the Department for Children, Schools and Families; Partnerships for Schools; Becta; BCSE; NCSL; Cabe; and Riba– or a conference programme that holds such credence. With local authorities, contractors, architects, headteachers, school governors and ICT professionals all networking under one roof, BSEC is a pivotal event not to be missed.

BSEC takes place at Manchester Central 11-12 February 2009. For free admission, visit