Westminster Insight: The future of building schools


Westminster Insight: The future of building schools – “who’s Horlicks was it anyway?”

Ty Goddard, Co-founder, The Education Foundation

You know what it’s like. After the set-piece political interview they sit on the sofa and relax, chat and often have a laugh. On The Andrew Marr Show on BBC1, they love this formula; looking at the Sunday papers and time for a natter on the sofa before the end of the programme.

On the 27th November 2016, Michael Gove, MP, sat on the sofa and admitted a mistake – that of cancelling Building Schools for the Future ( BSF) early on in his time as Education Secretary in 2010/11. It was a mistake he said  because it was done in a ‘crass and insensitive’ way, but not wrong to save public money.

Although, some think it’s fashionable to blame Gove for absolutely everything it is worth a moment of reflection here. BSF was the largest investment for generations in the fabric of our school estate.

Announced in 2004, the figures were mind-boggling – £55bn to rebuild every secondary school – but not before time for those schools that had become ‘two or three or bucket schools”. The state of the disintegration had become measured by the number of buckets you needed, to catch the water coming through the roof.

This was no idle or ironic throw away line from Headteachers – for schools that were often past their shelf life, let alone equipped for the future. That early Labour Government in the late 90’s took its time to build up to this investment – new build Academies, a level of refurbishment monies and the use of lottery funds to renovate or build new sports and PE facilities were early quick-fix investment in the education estate.

BSF set out to be a transformative and an area-wide investment. This investment was welcome, but, I was never convinced this was based on a forensic needs analysis or indeed the state of the actual buildings in that area. I also lost count of the number of times the word ‘transformation’ was used in Labour Minister’s speeches. The mere repetition of a word did not make it so; especially when you spend too little defining it with educators. The need for new Labour fanfare drowned out actual workability and in time the actual overall integrity of this vital programme.

I had come out of Chairing education in Lambeth and advising the government on Extended Schools to lead School Works, a dynamic school design organisation, which I grew to be the British Council for School Environments (BCSE) in 2005.

So, BSF and the later primary investment are an issue I’m very aware of and its important to celebrate that investment but there was much that was flawed, including:

  • the top down and rigid design of the programme – almost impossible, in the early days, to do it better and differently.
  • a roll out not always based on actual need – schools that were in the worst state, often not included in the investment.
  • exorbitant bid costs both for bidder and local authority ‘clients’ for which estimates said you could have built a new primary school.
  • the behaviour of multiple quangos involved in the process – often bullying and more concerned in their own organisational empire than outcome.
  • minimal evidence base at the start and little flexibility to adapt as we learnt more.
  • an inability by senior politicians, no matter how many reviews were initiated, to see that the mundane detail of implementation was absolutely key

And throughout a constant worry in the design, construction, local authority and education community that if you told truth to powerful quangos you would be somehow penalised.

School Environments do really matter and the work of researchers at Salford University and indeed feedback from educators and young people suggest that air, light, acoustics and comfort levels are worth investing in and thinking through. Water-tight roofs and heat in winter are pretty handy too.

Can a building act as ‘third teacher’? We can leave that for further debate. But its still worth a looking at the best education settings across the UK and in places such as Reggio Emilia, Italy. Certainly if workplaces matter then they matter for our educators and young people.

In June this year I enjoyed a debate with Toby Young and Head, Lesley Falconer at Hackney New School, on Kingsland Rd as part of London Architecture Week 2016. Although Toby has apologised for comments about teachers and teaching he still couldn’t resist a bit of slapstick at the expense of architects. His new role as CEO of the New Schools Network is crucial and he needs to help lead an open and measured debate. I welcome his understanding of the challenges we’ve all got ahead.

In the debate he told me with calculated wit that buildings don’t have feelings, … but, I guess you do as a teacher if your work environment is crumbling and it just doesn’t work.

Looking ahead – we now face a challenge of not only the actual fabric across our education estate but the need to build and refurbish to meet the predictable rise in the need for school places.  It’s almost as if we’ve invested more research money in narrating the problem and grinding particular axes than setting out a sustainable solution.

So there is HS2. We don’t want BSF2 but surely there is a strong policy case with a new Secretary of State for increased investment in the fabric of schools – and a “School Environments 2”