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Schools fit for the future - are we learning the right lessons?January 2008

Government is pouring billions into rebuilding the nation's schools, but is it money well spent - and how can we find out? Speakers at the 2007 BSRIA Briefing discussed the options.

The subject of today's lesson is...schools, but no ordinary schools - schools fit for the future. This is no space odyssey though, what was being discussed was the government's £45bn schools-rebuilding programme and whether it is fit for purpose. This brings with it difficult issues to solve, and divided opinions on the best approach.

Tim Byles, the Chief Executive of Partnership for Schools (PfS), opened the debate with what could be described as the political viewpoint, even throwing in a video message "from our sponsor", Gordon Brown. PfS’s responsibility, the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme, has been allocated £9.3 billion over the next three years to spend on new secondary schools in England. This is to rise to £8.2 billion in 2011. By the end of the 15-year programme, all of the 3,500 state secondary schools in England will have been either rebuilt or renewed. This programme represents a "seven-fold increase in funding for every state secondary school".

The scheme is also building up momentum "when I arrived a year ago one scheme had been concluded in BSF, now 11 have been concluded", Byles commented, "these deals amount to investment of £2.5 billion, half the local authorities in England are now engaged in BSF, 1000 schools are engaged in the planning and delivery process. A further 11 schools will open this year, and 50 next year rising to 200 schools a year the year after." This represents a massive opportunity to learn and develop as the programme advances. The key aspect of this learning is the use of Post Occupancy Evaluations (POE), of which every school in the programme will have. The results of a procurement review are due in the spring.

The response was provided by CABE commissioner Robin Nicholson, asking the question "Are we learning the right lessons?" Nicholson highlighted the need to choose the right architect and contractor, as design quality was consistent with the same participants. In order to address this, "The Department and CABE had some serious discussions to develop a close partnership working with LAs for the next 2 years. (Our role) is to give strategic advice at the start in the enabling programme and hold special design reviews at four stages in the design process."

The correct thought processes are key to getting value for money, "You could get 60% of renewables on site, but it might cost £3.5 million, where as for 100% through renewables you could get it with an off site wind farm for just £500,000. It is symptomatic of the fact that we like to look at things in tight boxes instead of working together."

In response to a question on the POEs from Mindi Hadi of BRE, Tim Byles said, "we wanted a POE of every BSF building, it is vital to see what is working. We need to be more systematic and disciplined with the way we capture this information and share it". Robin Nicholson added to this by saying, "If one can do a POE of the existing building as part of the briefing process, you end up with an informed client. This should make the next one (school) considerably better."

POE and procurement were also key themes of Ty Goddard's address. Goddard, a director of the British Council for School Environments, was certainly vocal with his views in the importance of POE, "A major national scheme up to now without POE at its heart seems to me nothing short of crackers." He also started the 'wow' debate, commenting on the danger of going for impact over function saying, "It is not about wow factors, it's about something much simpler, much more boring and less exciting than the massive wow factor. It's about how a building can serve a vision that you have for teaching and learning."

Talking about the view of major contractors and architects (and himself) on BSF he said, "We think it wastes money, we think it duplicates effort, takes too long, complicates simple things, demands answers where knowledge and experience is at its lowest. We think it does not allow for meaningful and timely stakeholder engagement and we believe that it does not seem to allow us as a society to fully harness the power of ICT in the process, and sustainability wasn't even mentioned at the launch."

He also believed that funding was an issue. The process is not allowing the full benefit of the programme to be fulfilled. He commented, "This is the irony of BSF correctly targeted at those local authorities that needed it most, but those LAs that needed it most were possibly the ones that have actually had to reduce the capacity of themselves to deliver the scheme the most." Continuing on this theme he reiterated the importance of POE, "If you are not going to fund POE on every project then it becomes meaningless we need POE and we need it to feed in to getting this process right."

However, POE was not the only feedback needed, commenting on the government's reviews and internal advisors he said, "it is absolutely crackers that right at the heart of government you've got no advisory body to tell the ministers direct, and I don't mean filtered through a civil servant, but a direct line to the secretary of state to tell him or her what is going on on the ground."

POE was a continuing theme of the briefing, with Anne King of BSRIA commenting on it, "I do not believe it is going to happen unless we build it in and unless we get it paid for by somebody, and I think PfS is a good place to start. How can you brief without learning what happened the last time."

But there would be no point in having an event on this subject without looking at the clients' point of view. So up steps headteacher Karen Fowler from Michael Faraday Primary School in Southwark. Her school, currently in a 1970s building in one of the most deprived areas of London, is due to be re-developed in 2008. With her 17 years experience as a headteacher, she certainly knows what works in terms of a functional educational environment, "Buildings don't make successful schools, a fantastic building is there to support learning and teaching but it is not the key driver of a schools success."

Function over style was a key issue raised again, "We do want a beautiful building, we also want a sustainable building, but not bells and whistles. I'm not interested in cedar roofs." However, some practices were obviously out to make bold designs, rather than taking into account the operation of the building as she gave one example, "One practice actually suggested an amazing design - all green grass roofs. And I said how do we look after the roof - and he said your premises manager can mow it!"

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