UK Architects came under fire this week in a damming “exposure” in the UK’s Guardian newspaper. The source was the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) who catalogued a list of defects in new schools at their AGM. The UK’s Building Schools for the Future programme (BSF) aims to rebuild every secondary school in England by 2020 at a cost of £45bn. However the criticisms raised at the organisation’s annual meeting, by ATL Health and Safety expert Ann Nash, questions whether the new schools emerging are actually fit for purpose.
Her complaints centred on a number of basic design flaws including; corridors that are too narrow which can spark fights through jostling, insufficient toilet capacity and heating and ventilation systems that are unable to cope. However Ms Nash didn’t offer her views on where the process was failing.
It is not unusual for Private Finance Initiative (PFI) funded projects to come under fire but the severity of these claims aroused interest in the WAN editorial office. We approached the Department for Education and Skills (DfES), headed by Alan Johnson to comment on the accusations, their spokesperson explained: “We recognise that in the early days of PFI design was not as good we would like and took action. This included enlisting CABE's help to advise on individual projects. Design is improving and there are now strict criteria to ensure new buildings are of the highest quality. This is reflected in the recent OECD report which included six English schools in their international compendium of exemplary educational facilities.”
Their implication from this comment clearly being that these problems were early issues and are all in the past. However, Sunand Prasad, President Elect of the RIBA spoke exclusively to WAN and believes that that these issues have not been resolved, “Many problems with the roll-out the BSF programme stem from there being no budget for concepts and design at the early stages of the project cycle. It is vital that some preliminary design and consultation is carried out before the project moves into the competitive stage to avoid these kind of situations. Currently many of these schemes go straight to the tender stage and there is no initial design. This may seem blindingly obvious but it’s a failing of the process that the Treasury and Government has not recognized and funded this crucial stage.”
Prasad also pointed out that as part of setting up the BSF a series of “exemplar school designs” had been prepared by a team of 11 architects and approved by the RIBA and CABE as a benchmark for the new schools. Clearly in the instances cited by the ATL these design examples had been ignored.
Robert Gisby, Chairman of SMC Education, the specialist educational design division of the SMC Group plc agreed that the early stages were critical, "Our design teams within all of the group's companies ensure that the community, the school, staff, pupils and parents are involved as early and as often in the design process to create designs that meet the Local Authorities education vision, together with the needs of individual schools and their communities."
Partnerships for Schools (PfS) is the body responsible for delivering the BSF programme. A message on their website from Tim Byles, Chief Executive seems to follow the same hymn sheet as the DfES (PfS is owned by DfES). "The PfS team worked hard through the year to address some early ‘teething troubles’, but we are pleased that we took the extra time to make sure that pathfinders and wave 1 projects were right. We have already used the lessons learned from these schemes, which is why wave 4 local authorities are ready to embark on BSF right away, and are in good shape to deliver on time and within budget."
Despite their damaging words in the UK press, neither Ann Nash or the ATL were prepared to speak to WAN on this subject. We will continue to investigate this issue and would welcome any comments.
COMMENT: Lee Mansfield of SMC
BSF exemplar/benchmark schools
OECD Report (PDF 4MB)
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