Levers for investment in the education sector are not what they used to be. Recognising the sorry state of a lot of England’s education estate, and its resultant damaging effect on pupils’ chances, the Government launched the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme, whose first wave of schemes emerged in 2005.
However as with the similarly PFI-funded hospital building boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s, there was a great deal of controversy around whether the wham-bam approach to delivering schools quick was both able to and did indeed generally deliver the required quality for good learning environments.
Some of the demolition decisions seemed more brutal to many than the allegedly brutal buildings they were removing, such as Pimlico School in London. And their replacements were not universally hailed as a success to say the least, such Pimlico’s replacement, which was criticised by the Government’s design watchdog CABE. And although Scotland did not fall under BSF, there was a ‘damning’ report in 2016 on 17 PFI schools built in Edinburgh which were claimed to have serious safety-critical design flaws.
Perhaps the issues resulting from PFI and the standardisation attempts made in BSF were what led Michael Gove to can the programme in 2010 and replace it with a combination of the Priority Schools Building Programme, or maybe it was the start of austerity. Essentially PSBP is a repair and renewal programme for the most dilapidated schools, and the separate Academies and Free Schools programmes. The new scheme offered hope to around 150 projects were left in limbo following the ending of BSF, including promises of getting off the ground in far less time than BSF equivalents. In total 277 projects are planned to complete before 2021.
While the PSBP covers a wide range of repair and rebuilding projects in England, Wales took the bull by the horns and introduced Schools Challenge Cymru, whose funding ended in 2016 but in three years targeted 40 schools for improvement. One of these was a new school, Bro Dinewfr, in picturesque Camarthenshire (which we feature on page 26 of this special supplement). However despite its attractive, eco-friendly design, the fact that it was created to replace two schools (one of which was 12 miles away), illustrates the funding challenges and the resultant local opposition the architects had to counter.
And kids of course face their own set of challenges. Now confronting formal SATS tests at age 11, on top of the perennial pressures to cope with in school, the minimum our kids deserve is that scrutiny and care is paid to the quality of the environments that underpin their learning. Beyond mere cliches of ‘investing in the future’, it’s simply a basic requirement of a civilised society to provide education in a way that is harmonious and supportive. Buildings are a fundamental part of this, from daylight to acoustics but also build quality and aesthetics, and this supplement celebrates several good examples.