Building a better future

With most commentators backing the idea of the Government spending more to stimulate the economy there is much talk of bringing forward public sector capital projects.

In the case of the £45b Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme, much of the planning is already in place: The work to refurbish or rebuild England’s secondary schools will provide a much-needed lifeline for the nation’s construction industry and its suppliers.

Late last year (November 2008) Schools Secretary Ed Balls confirmed that the Primary Capital Programme will release £3.5b of funding to begin refurbishing or rebuilding some 1500 primary schools over the next two years. 

It was inevitable that such a vast programme would come with challenges and risks attached; but this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity must be grasped and exploited for the future of our children and the communities they live in.

These new opportunities mean local education authorities are starting to leave behind a ‘make-do and mend’ approach.

A strategic approach

BSF allows local authorities to take a strategic approach, creating a vision that can be developed and implemented; transforming funding, design, procurement and building management.

We are developing a wealth of knowledge about what difference the acoustics, lighting, heating, classroom shape and even colour can make to educational attainment.

A new generation of schools, learning from what really works, offers a chance to provide a feeling of safety and inclusion that can foster both good learning habits and social skills.

They can help our children and grandchildren get the most from developments such as the growth of ICT and personalised learning: the vast majority of our school buildings were built before the development of the first PC in the mid-1970s.

Such a massive overhaul of the schools estate also quite rightly triggers expectations of greener, more sustainable facilities.  Schools account for 14% of public sector emissions and the BSF programme is looking seriously at its carbon footprint in how to create both carbon neutral schools and facilities that allow children to learn about the environment.

In the autumn the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) taskforce consulted on achieving zero carbon school buildings. In our response, we supported the idea of ‘smart metering’ in schools – but with some caveats.

BSF project teams should not cut and run after handing over a school for occupation. Instead, the DCSF should support the Soft Landings approach to procurement. This would mean that project teams would continue to work closely with the school during the first eight weeks of occupation to resolve problems – often it is around ‘green’ issues such as temperature control and energy use where there are teething problems.

While the first eight weeks might see the most intensive sort of engagement post-occupancy, we believe that the relationship needs to continue for several years.

A new agenda

Sustainability is not the only issue to have arrived on the agenda since BSF was first developed. As 2007 closed, the Government published its Children’s Plan – which emphasised the benefits of developing schools into year-round community facilities open to children and families at evenings and weekends.

Such schools would require very different buildings to the Victorian or 1970s facilities that we are familiar with. That is why we are concerned that a year after the Children’s Plan was published the DCSF has still not issued detailed guidance on co-location of services such as Sure Start.

We hope this will change, and the co-location of services becomes embedded in the thinking and development of new and refurbished school buildings. We want to see health, social care and other services available to local communities with schools acting as an umbrella to bring together community services that local people want and need.

Cabinet office minister Liam Byrne echoed this at the end of 2008, saying in a newspaper interview: “In the 21st century we need to build communities around schools.”

This is a welcome sentiment.  How we design, build, maintain and run the buildings will be crucial to making this approach work.

BSEC 2009 provides an opportunity for most of the parties involved in the BSF and other funding programmes for school building schemes and it should not be wasted.

While partnership working is a much-overused phrase, getting the most from the Government’s historic investment requires students, teachers, local authorities, architects, construction firms and suppliers to talk to each other.

So this year’s conference themes around the involvement and participation of school users in the design and construction process are particularly welcome.

Such co-operation and involvement holds out the prospect of not only getting a high-quality, purpose-built building or refurbishment, but getting the best out of the school in the long run.

With a sense of ownership, pupils and staff are likely to have a much more positive attitude towards their new environment. That feel-good factor could even feed over into maintenance costs: if young people have a voice in designing their school they will be more inclined to respect it.

Such factors make BSF one of the most exciting projects in modern British construction history. It is up to us to ensure that the investment stimulates minds, as well as the hard-pressed economy.

Find out more

If you want to find out more about the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme then pay a visit to the Building Schools Exhibition and Conference (BSEC), which is the only event that focuses solely on the construction, maintenance and design of schools in the UK and takes place at Manchester Central on 11-12 February 2009. 

Central to the event is the renowned conference programme, which addresses the major issues surrounding the roll out of Britain’s school newbuild and refurbishment programmes. As one of the most extensive conferences in the sector it is highly popular, attracting over 1000 delegates in 2008.

Jim Knight, Minister for Schools and Learners, will be delivering one of the much-anticipated keynote presentations and will be using the conference to announce the new national programme for Waves 7-15 of Building Schools for the Future, due to commence early in 2009.  

Delivering the opening keynote presentation will be TV favourite Johnny Ball, the much-loved promoter of science and maths and Becta’s next generation learning ambassador. Johnny will present his thoughts on the importance of science in education, future teaching methods and the ideal learning environment for the next generation to reach its full potential.

The exhibition features companies from across the supply chain and is supported by public sector organisations: Department for Children, Schools and Families, Partnerships for Schools, BECTA, BCSE, NCSL, CABE and RIBA. The event attracts local authorities, contractors, architects, headteachers, school governors and ICT professionals – all networking under one roof.

To find out more go to: www.buildingschools.co.uk

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