The built environment and education sectors are just waiting for the opportunity to retrofit and rebuild Britain’s schools, writes Rafael Marks

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Rafael Marks

The latest news cycle about RAAC in our schools highlights just one more crisis arising out of the chronic underfunding and neglect of our public services and social infrastructure that has characterised public policy over the past 13 years. So perhaps this is a good moment to pause and reflect more widely about the state of our education estate. To consider what has been lost since what now seems the glory days of the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme and to imagine where a revived school building programme may take us next.

For those of us involved in BSF at the time, thinking about it probably brings back shudders of horror as well as moments of pride. This exciting and seminal moment, all too fleeting as we now know, represented a fresh start to a school estate that had, even then, been subject to decades of neglect and underinvestment.

Blair’s mantra of “Education, education, education” was soon translated into an effective programme of investment and action, spurring on innovation and collaboration to develop new types of learning environments that would equip our children for their rapidly changing future.

Sure, there were problems and mistakes – wasteful competitive dialogues, profligate designs, bureaucratic processes - but there was a vision for a brighter future, backed up by funding. New Labour’s exhortation unleashed an upswelling of energy, enthusiasm and ambition to rebuild our school estate from the ground up.

Enter May 2010 and overnight this vision was extinguished, architects and ‘experts’ admonished, and BSF cancelled (an act later regarded by Michael Gove as ‘one of his worst mistakes’). What ensued was 13 years of austerity, cuts and parsimony. We’re all familiar with the figures by now.

Between 2009 and 2023, DoE capital spending declined by 46% in real terms and today, over 700,000 pupils learn in a school that is in major need of rebuilding or refurbishment. The National Audit Office estimates that at least £6.7bn is needed just for backlog maintenance.

What was the ambitiously named Building Schools for the Future, became the uninspiringly named Priority Schools Building Programme, with reduced ‘baseline’ standards, narrow corridors, and a bums-on-seats approach. More recently, this morphed into the even more prosaic ‘School Rebuilding Programme’.

We in the education and built-environment sectors, with our wealth of expertise and experience, are poised and ready for action

Sure, there have been multiple announcements for new school building funding along the way, including Boris Johnson announcing in 2019 to great fanfare, a £1bn schools rebuilding programme to give children a ‘world class education’. But this stands in stark contrast to the £55bn BSF programme. In 2022/23 capital spending by the DoE stood at around one tenth of this figure.

Not that the BSF programme would necessarily have replaced the RAAC buildings or even dealt with all the backlog maintenance that the schools estate suffers from, but what the recent crisis has highlighted is that short term savings lead to long term costs.

Today’s young people face an uncertain future – onslaught of the climate emergency, biodiversity loss, rapid technological change, pandemics, social inequality  – you name it, they face it. And in the midst of all this uncertainty, they suffer from unprecedented mental health and wellbeing issues.

How do we renew our education estate to create sustainable and safe schools that inspire, excite and dignify our staff and kids, that are inclusive and welcoming, and that are resilient in the face of this uncertain future? At Perkins & Will we have developed a Healthy Schools by Design toolkit that provides a holistic approach to designing such resilient learning environments.

The toolkit is based on three key characteristics: educational adaptation – strategies that support behavioural, logistical and technological flexibility as teaching and learning changes; health promotion – embedding strategies that promote physical and mental health, social cohesion and a sense of belonging and safety; and risk mitigation – strategies for reducing adverse environmental exposures that influence school occupant health and performance.

This human-centric approach puts health at the centre of design with the aim of enhancing academic and creative performance and optimising student and community well-being.

So where do we go from here? We need a fresh educational policy that looks beyond the myopic balance sheet and the current RAAC crisis - one that is radical in vision, broad in scope and high in aspiration. And importantly, one that is sustained and supported from the top down and from the bottom up.

We in the education and built-environment sectors, with our wealth of expertise and experience, are poised and ready for action. Let us unleash this energy to reinvigorate a new programme of (re)building, and retrofitting schools for a brighter future.

>> Also read: RAAC schools had been due for renewal under scrapped Labour plan

>> Also read: Our crumbling schools are just one more symptom of this government’s failure to plan for the future