Shadow minister speaks out as coalition accused of double standards on design.
The shadow schools minister is leading a call for the government to think again about using standardised design for its new school building programme.
Following the long-awaited publication of the James Review, Labour’s Kevin Brennan voiced fears that schools would not be fit for purpose.
“The building environment of a school is important for learning,” he told BD. “Good design doesn’t have to be expensive. It’s about innovation and creativity. Michael Gove seems happy for children to learn in completely unsuitable buildings.”
Brennan’s intervention was backed by the RIBA, Design Council Cabe and former architecture minister Alan Howarth, who all called on education secretary Michael Gove to allow bespoke design rather than imposing standardisation.
Critics of last week’s James Review, which came out as schools broke up for Easter, immediately pointed to apparent discrepancies in government thinking on building design following recent comments on the issue by housing minister Grant Shapps.
Last month he complained that “too often new [housing] developments are dominated by the same, identikit designs”, while this week, launching the Housing Design Awards, he again slapped down “Legoland homes” in favour of design-led developments which make “homes more environmentally friendly, [bring] disused buildings back to life or [reflect] the character of the local area”.
Good design doesn’t have to be expensive. It’s about innovation and creativity
RIBA president Ruth Reed said: “There are a great deal of mixed messages coming out from government. The housing Shapps is talking about is developed using private money but when public money is being used on schools, they’re not applying the same standards of design.”
She also suggested a conflict with the government’s localism agenda following the recommendation by the James Review that a central delivery body be set up to manage major projects at a national level.
Design Council Cabe director Di Haigh argued standardised designs would not make the process simpler as intended.
“What’s needed is a system of flexible design and local feedback to meet the specific needs of the children and community in which schools are built,” she said.
AHMM director Paul Monaghan, who was vice chair of the school design panel, agreed design under BSF had been improving but admitted the process as a whole had been “a horror story”.
“The James Review’s descriptions of the problems with BSF are very well described,” he added.
The government is due to respond to the recommendations by the middle of next month.
Smaller practices could find it easier to win school design work in future, according to schools architect and former RIBA president Sunand Prasad.
Former RIBA president Sunand Prasad said he hoped that the coalition’s localism agenda would influence the delayed capital review into the future of post-BSF school investment, which is expected to be published soon.
“Sensible people are realising it’s more complicated than they thought and are taking time to get it right,” he said. “There was a danger of throwing the baby out with the BSF bathwater. “Because of localism I am hopeful there will be more work for smaller firms than was the case in BSF. But it’s all speculation at this stage.”
In the meantime, work has begun on the first wave of 25 free schools due to open in September.
Partnerships for Schools has appointed two firms to advance the schools to business case. Capita Symonds is using in-house architects while Turner & Townsend has hired Bond Bryan and NPS.
Design work on schools themselves is still up for grabs, though school proposers will be expected to follow procurement rules once the capital review has set them.
The Department for Education said most groups would use Partnership for Schools’ frameworks or local authority frameworks but “have the option of procuring their own capital works”.
Writer Toby Young, whose West London Free School steering group includes architect Mustafa Erdem from Chiswick practice Hans Haenlein Architects, said: “Given this is public money, it seems eminently sensible that free school proposers should have no influence over which firms of architects work on their projects or they could be accused of giving work to their friends.”
The Department for Education is still unable to say when the capital review will be published, though insiders suggest it could be this month.
The remainder schemes within the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme are being hit with a further 40% of cuts, affecting some 600 projects.
Tim Byles, chief executive of BSF delivery body Partnerships for Schools, told affected councils the news in a conference call, according to reports in The Guardian.
The cuts will affect all schemes, including academies and ‘sample schools’, that were saved in the Department for Education’s cull of the scheme in July.
It is expected that schools that are further ahead in the process will survive with minimal intervention. Sean Griffiths, director at Fat, said: “I cannot see how savings could be made unless you’re starting from scratch - the costs would far outweigh the benefits.”