Tackling the school estate challenge

With limited funding available to provide extra school places, and many existing schools in need of a major overhaul, now is the time to look more closely at how excellent design can help the government’s capital funding programme stretch as far as possible, writes Emilia Plotka, RIBA’s policy advisor.

Schools play an important role in widening our outlook and life chances, and can affect our self-esteem, performance and friendships. The government has committed to providing each pupil a place at a good school, but this key objective is becoming harder to achieve in the face of budget pressures and increasing numbers of children entering the education system.

With limited funding available to provide extra school places, and many existing schools in need of a major overhaul, there could not be a better time to look more closely at how excellent design can help the government’s capital funding programme stretch as far as possible while delivering good outcomes.

We believe three areas need close attention. The first is improving information and communication flows between the school, government and design and construction teams during a project. The second is adopting a more flexible approach to the rules governing the design and size of new schools to allow for the best possible use of resources. And lastly, we believe there is a need to take a smarter approach to the use of building management equipment that controls the internal environment of modern school buildings.

The benefits of good design
Good school design is demonstrably capable of creating cost-effective environments that help drive up educational outcomes, enhance teacher and pupil well being, and limit future running and maintenance costs. It is therefore one of the most important things the government can do to ensure capital funding represents a good deal for pupils, teachers, parents and taxpayers.

The RIBA’s latest report, Better Spaces for Learning, hones in on this point to demonstrate how existing funds for new and refurbished school buildings can be spent more effectively without storing up problems for the future. At the heart of our argument is our belief that giving the teams designing and building new schools greater flexibility will enable future schools to benefit from the expertise of the professionals involved.

Our research brings together the largest analysis of Post Occupancy Evaluations (POEs) of primary and secondary school buildings in the UK, an independent nationwide poll of teachers about their experiences, and two years’ worth of discussions with leading school building experts, spanning architects, contractors, engineers, consultants, academics, educationalists, teachers and many more involved in delivering government-funded schools.

This evidence demonstrates good design makes a noticeable difference to educational outcomes and frees up resources. The POE analysis carried out for us by two leading consultancies using HM Treasury’s guidance for capturing value has shown that good school design has a significant and positive impact on pupil attainment, well being and engagement. Similarly, it has a positive impact on school staff’s productivity, with the most comfortable and well-designed schools demonstrating a 15 per cent increase.

Good design makes schools cheaper to run and maintain, in some cases by more than several times a teacher’s average salary a year. The researchers have estimated that at least £150m annually is being spent on unnecessary services and maintenance which could have been avoided if schools very better designed, particularly with less complex mechanical and electrical systems which are difficult to operate and have a short lifespan.

Feedback from building users
The POE analysis followed a rigorous scientific framework for capturing evidence and was reviewed by leading academics and industry experts, but we also wanted to find out whether these issues were felt on the ground by the people using school buildings on a daily basis.

We therefore commissioned an independent and nation-wide poll of primary and secondary teachers to probe their experiences. What we found was closely aligned with findings from the POE evidence, with an overwhelming majority of teachers (over 90 per cent) believing good school buildings can reduce bullying and misbehaviour and boost attainment levels. Most (over 90 per cent) also felt that the quality of the buildings has a significant impact on their productivity and well being. A shocking 1 in 5 teachers have quit their jobs in the past because of the poor state of school buildings and those who are unhappy with the current condition of their schools are more likely to consider quitting.

School design overwhelmingly matters and impacts teachers and their pupils. However, many school building experts we interviewed are concerned that while government is currently succeeding in delivering schools to incredibly tight budgets, its delivery scheme is also proving to be hugely restrictive in terms of the design and time frames allowed for the construction of new schools. This one‑size‑fits‑all approach means that opportunities to innovate or respond to local context to optimise investment are being curtailed.

Additionally, we have been advised that in the quest to limit time and costs, the EFA is cutting out key elements from its school delivery programme, which represents a false economy.

Focused spending
Cost-effectiveness and good design are mutually reinforcing if investment and spending is focused in the right way. With he right reforms, the schools delivered by government could be much better for teachers and pupils, for the same cost. Our school building experts have outlined three key areas for reform to aid this transition.

Firstly, the government needs to ensure that more is done to improve the flow of information between individual schools, the Education Funding Agency (EFA, the government’s school building delivery body), and those bidding for contracts. The EFA’s approach to procuring new schools creates significant time pressures on all involved.

At present, government policy aims to deliver a completed design in just six weeks. Quicker, more focused procedures can produce excellent results, but this is dependent on the information needed to inform design and construction processes being available at the right time and to the right standard. Significant reforms will be needed to ensure this, particularly around improving the quality of site assessments and feasibility studies, and ensuring schools are appropriately engaged on building programmes. These will help prevent further costly but avoidable problems cropping up during the construction phase which eat away at budgets allocated for crucial school amenities, such as hydrotherapy pools in SEND schools.

A flexible approach
The second key priority area for reform relates to allowing a more flexible approach to the design of new school buildings. Each school offers a unique set of challenges and opportunities, and a good design team can help deliver the best outcomes and value if the rules allow it. The EFA needs to be clearer when dealing with its partners about how they want to see its baseline standards and designs for schools used during the design process. Although the EFA has told us the baseline criteria are a minimum, in practice they are treated as a standard to which everything is expected to be built. To get the most out of new buildings, the EFA should encourage bidders to demonstrate how these can be exceeded through innovative approaches on budget.

A good learning environment
Finally, there should be a change of focus in how the EFA ensures that school buildings provide a good learning environment. A combination of inappropriate processes and a one-size-fits-all approach means that many school buildings are being fitted with complex and expensive mechanical and electrical equipment that would not be needed if the right design solutions were adopted. The initial and ongoing costs of these systems can be enormous – and their failure has left many schools struggling with buildings that simply are not up to standard.

The reward is huge. By introducing these reforms, we believe government will be able to achieve a capital funding programme that would work much more effectively and efficiently and positive project outcomes would be more frequent. This would not just represent a better use of public money, but have real implications for pupil attainment and teacher productivity.

Achieving this more efficient and effective system will be crucial if the government is to meet the challenges of the future – not least in the face of a possible recession following the referendum result. Even though school spending has been protected over the course of this parliament, the school estate challenge remains huge and will continue to grow.

Further information