Last month, Sebastian James’ Review of Education Capital  was published. James, and his team reviewed the previous Labour Government’s Building Schools for the Future programme (BSF), which had the  “quixotic aim of rebuilding or refurbishing every secondary school in England by 2020” (2011: 12).  That judgement about BSF indicates the new policy discourse on school buildings.

BSF was felt to be too ambitious, quixotically so, thus, it comes as no surprise that, especially in an age of austerity, it is recommended that school building programmes need to be less ambitious.  One of the key recommendations arising from the review is that of standardisation:

“New buildings should be based on a clear set of standardised drawings and specifications that will incorporate the latest thinking on educational requirements and the bulk of regulatory needs.” (2011: 6)

Thus, the notion of Flat Pack Schools has been raised by the Guardian. The Review itself comes close to using the phrase ‘flatpack’ when it envisages that  “…off-site construction will be possible for some standard elements from plant rooms up to specialist classrooms”  before later going on to describe the  “modular build and the manufacture of standardised components off-site”  (ibid: 54)

The discourse of the Review justifies the flatpack option; BSF wasted time and money during the planning, and procurement stages. Times are hard, standardisation is cheaper. This sounds somewhat plausible.  More schools can be rebuilt or refurbished this way than under BSF (Or, alternatively the Conservatives build more schools than Labour).  It is reminiscent of the 1951 Conservative Government’s council housing policy, which saw changes in both the quantity and quality of new council houses [1].

Another rationale for standardising the school estate, according to the Review is the problematic involvement of head teachers and pupils in the design process.  The design of some schools might have reflected the pedagogical approach of a particular head, who would move on, presumably lumbering his or her successor with a building which was at odds with their pedagogical approach.  Similarly, pupils who were involved in the design process of their new school might never get the opportunity to experience the completed project, as they would leave school before the new building was ready. In one sense it sounds a reasonable reason for denying such users a voice.  Why should teachers and pupils design a school that, at best they will get to use, at best, only briefly?  At the same time,  it is a curious rationale.   Do teachers and pupils not have valuable experiences which can benefit future generations of users of those same buildings?  Should user consultation be stopped for every other project, building or otherwise?

Standardisation, the preferred solution to messy teacher and pupil involvement, thus denies these people a voice, but also gives control to the Government.  It is their pedagogical model that is to be imposed on new school buildings. Politicians will spend little time using these school buildings, which, apparently is a rationale for denying other users of school buildings a say in their design.

This discourse is at odds with the wider educational discourse of the current Government.  Last year Michael Gove proudly boasted:

“Teachers, not politicians, know best how to run schools”

Does the “greater freedom” promised, not apply to the design of buildings that these teachers will teach in?

This policy dismissal of pupils’ views on the design of their school buildings coincidentally comes at the same time as  The School I’d Like run by the Guardian.  School design, as well as other aspects of the curriculum featured among the young people’s recommendations.  There are some suggestions, which many teachers, parents and politicians would not want to see in schools,  like chocolate fountains, but, fundamentally children know what makes a good, comfortable school in which they are happy to learn.

The Private sector (or Public Schools) take a different approach, viewing their architectural resources as important assets which appeal to prospective parents.   Read Fiona Millar’s post on the Truth About Our Schools website.  She asks why, if school buildings have no transformational effect, Eton College is so keen to celebrate its resources in this regard.

James, S (2011) Review of Education Capital [Online] Available at http://media.education.gov.uk/assets/files/pdf/c/capital%20review.pdf

[1]Among other sources, there is a brief mention of this in:  Milner, J. and Madigan, R. (2004) Regulation and innovation: rethinking ‘inclusive’ housing design, Housing Studies, 19, 5, pp. 727-744

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