Building Better Schools

A little while back (27th June, in fact) I attended the British Council for School Environments (BCSE) conference and ran an interactive session with the delegates. The session used some neat tools, including the SMS Messaging system developed by Cleveratom (now called MobiStick), but the purpose was to open up the dialogue relating to some of the issues surrounding the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) processes. The session helped gather thoughts and ideas to inform the BCSE response to the Education and Skills Committee report “Sustainable Schools: are we building schools for the future?”

Not surprisingly, the response has a clear focus on the procurement process which has been a bone of contention for quite a while now. Recently revised, it still causes concern in that the emphasis on procurement is often detracting from the more fundamental educational needs. Whilst I shudder at the thought of the word ‘Transformation’ being used glibly (it is, in my opinion, a retrospective activity to look back and see if you have transformed, rather than a forward looking activity that you can plan for), we are simply not going to transform learning through the BSF process if we don’t have a good hard look at how learners engage with the process of learning. Much of this absolutely must come from engagement of the stakeholders to inform the bidding teams, which currently happens far too late in the process, or worse, not at all.

And once we have bought and paid for such inspirational buildings, and challenged current wisdom about how learners learn, created a new and exciting curriculum and put in place cutting edge technology to support it, what then? How do we then evaluate (I hasten to remove the word ‘measure’) the impact? Where is the single unified post-occupancy evaluation that tells us whether or not a real and sustainable difference has been made, because surely it is only through such a system that we can begin to grasp the extent of transformation. However, a post occupancy evaluation may also help to stay the dogs of war who are looking to criticise the way public money is being spent. We all know only too well the ongoing rumblings of discontent surrounding some of the first projects, and it is exactly this sort of thing that sends people (often politicians) into a rear guard action and cuts short or stifles an otherwise brilliant opportunity for change.

What I would welcome in BSF is a far greater involvement in the very teachers and students who are going to leave one old, decrepit building and enter a bright, shiny new one which will in some way transform learning. Whereas we have Design Quality Indicators which are intended to show the ways a building could be better, they are hardly written in a way that can engage young people in the decision making process. What we need is a system that allows teachers and students, parents, governors – all stakeholders – to be able to give the right kind of rich data that bidding teams need in order to create more exciting, more relevant responses. Incidentally, such a system would help the local authorities collect more vibrant information and help them ask the right questions of the bid teams.

Whereas on the one hand we have got the ‘Every Child Matters’ agenda, and initiatives such as ‘Extended Schools’ (both of which are valuable, in my opinion), these seem to disappear in the cut and thrust of procurement in BSF – they absolutely start off right in the thick of it, but seemingly get left on the sidelines as soon as real money is debated. I’ve lost count of the times I have heard of particular features of a design being ‘cost engineered’ out and what that really means is that we are not looking at the best opportunities for learning (isn’t that the core purpose of a school anymore?) but at the buildings and facilities. Are we not then losing sight of what this is all about?

I have a theory that any new or redevelopment absolutely must be a balance of three core things: first and foremost, the pedagogy; secondly the technology to underpin the opportunities; thirdly the buildings and environment for learning. Somewhere in amongst that triangle will sit every single school and all will have an emphasis towards one or two of those three aspects. It won’t be the same for all schools, and even in very similar settings the fine grain detail will differentiate between them, but before a school can ‘transform’ it surely needs to know where it is. Most seem to, thankfully.

So then the transformation must be evaluated after we have juggled the three dimensions and looked at the path the school has been down, and to what extent things are different after the project completes. Even then we might say that we have got the same old school in a new building, and that alone is not transformation. Only when we consider the difference, and the opportunities for learning that are introduced, and the take up of those opportunities can we begin to grasp whether the BSF process has had the desired impact.

And we can only do that after the students and teachers take their place in the new building and start to work in new ways, with the new curriculum and new structures and processes.

If the procurement process is to end up as the main driver in BSF are we not losing the plot? Of course it must be a massive consideration – we don’t have an infinite amount of money, after all – but if we don’t look at how we can better inform the process with data from the end users, both before and after occupancy of the buildings, how are we ever going to improve this?

The BCSE response goes much further, of course, and considers many of the contentious issues (Building Bulletin 98 is *still* the guiding principle when creating learning spaces – it is TEN YEARS old… we need to throw down the gauntlet here -let’s have a better Building Bulletin), stakeholder engagement, DQI complexity and so on. It seems to me that we ought to all support the BCSE in challenging the process, and open up the debate surrounding how to improve BSF procedures. We don’t need to be confrontational, but we do need to bring to bear a lot of experience we have all gathered and most importantly, listen to the staff and students.