Monday, 25 March 2013

Reflecting on school design & procurement

We need to think hard for the sake of our children

School building is always controversial. I was at the House of Lords last week, ( just slipped that in) to see a presentation by a number if year 10 students showing 200 adults how to use the latest BIM software. It was a very humbling experience.
At the event Lord Knight made a speech. You may remember Jim Knight as the labour Governments Schools minister. During his tenure I listened to him on many occasions. He was the minister with responsibility for the BSF programme.
Several years later and now in opposition he has had time to reflect. In the speech he made at the House of Lords he all but admitted that the Labour government had achieved little when it came to education despite throwing "everything at it. "There seemed to be no shortage of spending or resources at the time yet the outcomes were poor.
So what does this tell us.
First of all we wasted millions of pounds of taxpayers money procuring and building unique education facilities. This is very generous if it can be afforded but if the teaching and learning is not right we are wasting our time.
The great and the good of the RIBA will test your conscience and tell you that every school should be designed individually for that location. They also make us feel guilty if we are perceived to short change our young people.
I have an alternative view. By choosing the easy ( and profitable)way and delivering unique schools every time we let down thousands of other students who are still stuck in buildings which leak or are falling down and not fit for purpose.
We overspent and focused on all of the wrong things. The easy route was to assume that all of the issues with our education system were down to the crumbling estate. Whilst this is part of the problem I would argue that it is the culture of what goes on in schools which is fundamentally flawed. Clearly this is much harder to change and I'm sure it was hoped by providing new facilities new cultures would develop. It is clear this hasn't worked.

As an example space architecture designed a fantastic school which was an outstanding environment to allow new methods of learning.On a recent visit it was clear the building is not being used as it had designed and the discipline in the school was poor.

Another good example is a school in north Tyneside which was built around a sports hall. The heads idea was the students would learn in 15 minute bursts followed by exercise.
Some might argue this was very innovative but I wouldn't want this experiment carried out at the expense of my children. Worse still several years on the head fell out with the local authority and moved on. His personal experiment remains in place with others trying to pick up the pieces.

The construction industry sat back during this period and just delivered what the government wanted. They took there large margins and passed it back to shareholders. No one questioned what we were doing or if there was a better way.

We certainly acknowledged the process was wasteful but didn't look at any innovation in design or construction.

I have to pick out one company however. Laing O Rouke identified the waste and invested millions in developing a concrete factory. They trained all of their people in new thinking only to be caught out by the recession.

We have now started to build schools again, in some cases half the cost of BSF schools. Our duty as an industry is to use what we have learned to build as many high quality schools for as little as possible. We can't short change our young people with an inferior product but likewise we can afford to indulge ourselves.
The new Priority Schools Building programme is set up to deliver innovation. We need to look at standardization in our schools and invest in energy conservation to help the long term revenue challenges faced by schools.

These building can still be exciting and inspirational but may not have the "wow" factor which was always pursued during BSF.

There is no evidence that innovation or great learning his linked to a wow environment.Many of the successful organizations of recent years such as google, Facebook or apple all started out in modest spaces.

We have been working with google recently on a number if building projects. Whilst their current spaces are filled with exciting furniture and systems the environments are simple and flexible. There is also a huge difference in that google have massive cash pile behind them.

At space group we are putting our money where our mouth is. We are absolutely convinced that we can deliver excellent schools at a fraction of the capital and revenue costs if the past. Over the last two years we have taken all of the learning from BSF and the recent learning from PSBP to develop scola.
It specifically focuses on the Private finance schools and maximizes the use of offsite, BIM and sustainably to allow as much of the capital to be invested in the product rather than the process.

You will be able to see scola at BFE and we hope it will encourage debate about what part the construction industry can play in the development if our young people

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