Tim Byles: Building schools for the future is about more than just bricks and mortar

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Unprecedented, unrivalled, unique. These words are wheeled out on a regular basis to describe any number of projects, often in breach of their definition. But Building Schools for the Future – which will transform every single state secondary school in England during its lifetime – can certainly lay claim to these adjectives.

There's no denying that BSF is a hugely ambitious project, one truly without peer which will help change the face of teaching, learning and community involvement forever. Around 3,500 schools will be rebuilt or remodelled providing 21st-century learning environments for some 3.3 million students, thousands of teachers, and local communities the length and breadth of the country.

But despite the name, it would be wrong to think of BSF as simply a building programme. It is about much more than bricks and mortar. BSF offers local authorities and schools a real chance to transform education and opportunities in their areas.

We have a once-in-a-generation chance to create physical and virtual environments where children want to go and where they want to learn, where they feel safe, and where they are inspired to reach their full potential. And the same is true for teachers. We want working environments which allow teachers to harness new technologies, not only as a teaching resource but to support their own personal and professional development. BSF also opens the door to wider use of facilities by students, parents and the local community for lifelong learning, drama, leisure and sports.

Through the Local Education Partnership, the innovative public private partnership model devised specifically for BSF, we are seeing an even greater alignment of the interests of the public and private sectors. The long-term exclusive partnering agreements are proving to be the catalyst for wider regeneration, from social housing and healthcare, to community policing and public libraries. And it is a model which is attracting attention from would-be imitators worldwide.

BSF schools which have now opened their gates are already making a real difference in the communities they serve. Most recently, Bristol Brunel Academy – the first brand new BSF school delivered through a Local Education Partnership – opened in September and feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.

Applications for the new academic year have increased steeply. While it is still too early to draw hard and fast lessons from Bristol, there are already signs of positive outcomes: students take pride in wearing their uniform; an overwhelming interest in facilities from community groups; people who were putting their homes on the market now taking them off; and, critically, staff reporting improved behaviour, attendance and concentration.

It's an emerging pattern we hope is replicated wherever BSF touches a local community; and this hope is echoed by headteachers, teachers and pupils who were surveyed for the first independent evaluation of BSF, published at the end of 2007.

The report includes the sobering fact that only 11 per cent of students say they feel inspired by their current learning environment. And it's a similar story for teachers, many of whom are battling with poor lighting, inadequate heating, and noise levels when all they want to do is teach.

Throughout 2008 more students, more teachers, more communities will get to see for themselves the difference a new learning environment makes, with around 30 BSF schools due to open. Thousands of students will be playing a hands-on role in defining what their new schools should look and feel like, thanks to the work of the Sorrell Foundation involving young people as "clients" in the design process.

There is growing recognition that BSF is much more than just a large scale building programme. I do not want our legacy to be measured in bricks and mortar, but by our success in providing inspiring learning environments for citizens of the 21st century, and ultimately by our success in improving the life chances of young people and communities across the country.

The writer is the chief executive of Partnership for Schools

All the major stakeholders in the Building Schools for the Future programme will be at the Building Schools Exhibition and Conference (BSEC08) on 12-13 February at Manchester Central. For more information, call 01474 876979 or visit: www.buildingschools.co.uk/bsec