School design – don't shred the investment

Sir John Sorrell
25 November 2009

Sir John Sorrell argues for Government to continue investing in the fabric of our schools. We must build on – not dissipate – all the progress made so far.

Sir John Sorrell, chair of CABE

Sir John Sorrell, chair of CABE

‘Quality is never an accident; it is always the result of intelligent effort.’  When Ruskin said this, he wasn’t referring to school design. But he could have been.

Where do we go from here with school design? The simple answer is: go forward, not back. And if you look back at everything that’s already been achieved, you’ll see why.

There’s been unprecedented investment in rebuilding and improving secondary schools through BSF, academies, and now primary schools as well through the Primary Capital Programme. And with this investment, there’s also been a commitment to good design by the government.  First, with the establishment of CABE’s schools design panel, and then with the minimum design standard. Both the Department for Children, Schools and Families and Partnerships for Schools have shown a commitment to excellence that really deserves credit.

We’re already seeing the results. School design is getting better all the time. We now have schools all over the country such as Titus Salt School and Buttershaw Business and Enterprise College in Bradford; Walbottle Campus in Newcastle; Stockwell Park High School in south London; and Kelmscott School in Waltham Forest.

Bristol Metropolitan College was shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Better Public Building Award this year, while Westminster Academy was a strong contender for the Stirling Prize last year.

These are just a few examples. We are beginning to see a real shift for the better in the quality of the school estate.

Design makes a difference: it helps children learn and raises their aspirations; it discourages them from truancy; it stops them being bullied; it raises staff morale. It gives a school its own identity. Of course, everyone here already knows that design matters. It’s about providing an environment that gives every pupil the best chance and every teacher a workplace that helps them do their job.

Westminster Academy has more than tripled the number of pupils achieving five A Star to C grades at GCSE since it moved into its new building in September 2007. And this year 100 per cent of its sixth formers gained a university place.  These are extraordinary achivements.

Joseph Chamberlain Sixth Form College, in a particularly disadvantaged area of Birmingham, won this year’s Prime Minster’s Better Public Building Award. Its principal, Elly Tobin, told CABE:

‘Never in their wildest dreams would these young people have expected such a wonderful building. It makes them feel proud and good about themselves. It gives them a sense of their place in the community and a sense of responsibility. They have been given something special and they want to do well and give something back.’

 That’s why we can’t shred capital investment for schools. Hundreds of schools are being transformed by programmes like BSF and the Primary Capital Programme. But far too many have yet to benefit. If we stop now, we would be failing children and their families for generations to come. This is about the education and life chances of millions of children and young people.

Retaining capital expenditure is fundamental to the quality of this public service. But more than that – it’s an expression of our public values.

When Britain started building schools again, not everyone understood how to do it well.  We saw that when CABE produced its audit of PFI schools built between 2000 and 2005. But now, people do know how to do it well.  Through the work of CABE, its schools design panel and others, there is now a wealth of knowledge about what makes a well designed school.

We have the 10 criteria and clear questions that bidding teams need to ask themselves. We have case studies of excellent schools. And the resource developed by CABE, Successful school design, which pulls together the lessons that we have learnt from the panel’s reviews, has been hugely popular: 2,000 downloads of the publication in just five months.  The knowledge is now out there, and there is a great demand for it.

Nobody sets out to create a bad school. We know that local authorities want the best for their schools. And with CABE’s and everyone else’s help they are becoming more expert, more demanding, and they are getting better-designed schools.

We also now have the minimum design standard, which was launched in May this year at Stockwell Park High School in south London. This was the first school rated ‘excellent’ by the schools design panel. A year 7 pupil, Stefan Edwards, said: ‘The space that we have in the school makes us feel fresh and calm. It gives us a sense of freedom.’

The minimum design standard will ensure that no sub-standard school will be built with public money through BSF. CABE led the way in pushing for a design threshold for schools – an idea that the government is now promoting for all public programmes in its strategy for ‘World class places’.

The real threat, however, is that all this progress could be dissipated.

In the financial sector they’re starting to think that it’s business as usual. But it’s not business as usual for the public sector. Whoever is in power, it looks as if we’re entering an era of harsh spending cuts which could drastically affect culture, healthcare, and schools as well. Though the overall budget may shrink, we must continue to invest in the school estate. BSF and the Primary Capital Programme have the potential to change the fabric of our schools for generations. This is what is at risk. There is mounting pressure to cut quality, even cut out design altogether. We have to stand up to this.

We need to find the courage, use the evidence and make the argument that we cannot cut back on quality in our school estate.

But what if, despite our protestations, budgets for new schools are cut?  Everyone will have to be more innovative and re-think how quality public buildings and spaces can be designed and delivered on reduced budgets.

That debate will include standardisation. But we need to look at this carefully. It’s important to make the distinction between standard designs, and standard components. We can’t have identikit new-build schools popping up all over the country. Each school needs to respond to its context. It needs to find specific solutions to problems presented by its site, for example. It needs to respond to the local authority’s own vision for its schools.

But where it makes sense, designs could incorporate standard components.  Partitions or doors, internal stairs, for example. Rather than promoting a standard design, clients can learn from the various typologies identified by CABE’s schools design panel. And standard components could fit into that.

We will see more refurbished schools – and this is also something that CABE will be providing more advice about. Refurbishment often presents great opportunities and can be the right solution. It can result in excellent schools, such as St Benedict’s School in Ealing. Or Cotham School in Bristol which is now on site. Refurbishment should not be seen as ‘second best’. But let’s not imagine that it will solve all the problems: we still need to be investing in new schools as well.

It’s inevitable that when we look at how to continue to get quality schools with less money, the cry will go up to change the way we procure those schools. We’ve already had much debate about procurement when the money was flowing. And when some people complain about costs here, or time pressures there – I understand what they mean. And I know that Tim Byles and Partnerships for Schools are looking at this very hard as well at the moment.

But as important as the procurement process is, it’s not the real issue. The real issue is clients. We can debate the merits of competitive dialogue and we can refine frameworks. But whatever model we choose, it is the capability of the client that is going to be the deciding factor: strong leadership, expertise, the ability to write a clear brief. It’s not an easy task and that’s why CABE is helping local authorities at the earliest stages – including when they are putting together their ‘readiness to deliver’ documents.

Something else that risks falling by the wayside as budgets are cut is the commitment to zero carbon. There does not yet seem to be cross-party consensus on this. But the climate isn’t going to wait for budgets to balance. We must work towards the target for zero carbon schools.

The schools design panel assesses whether a design will result in a sustainable school. And CABE is determined that whatever the budget, whether new-build, remodel or refurbishment, this criteria is met.

If sustainable schools are to be created – schools that work for the people who use them: pupils, teachers and the wider community – we can’t afford to cut back on design.

The worst thing that could come out of this recession would be a return to the quick, cheap and ugly of the past. Quick was always a myth. Cheap will always be important. But ugly is an insult to our society.  It’s not how public money should be spent and it’s not the legacy anyone wants to see left.

So, with a school estate still needing radical investment set against a rising clamour for cuts in public spending, we have to make the argument for more investment.  It won’t be easy.  And everyone who cares about the everyday environment and working conditions for young people and teachers needs to rise to the challenge and stand up for quality schools.

Let’s go forward, not back.