The James review into school capital funding, after much delay, rewriting and a great deal of speculation, has arrived.
Much of the report concentrates on the failings of the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme, launched by the last government to renew the secondary school estate.
But it also highlights some of the “wicked questions” that need to be answered if we are to deal with the national challenge of developing a school estate that is fit for purpose and meets the needs of our teachers and pupils.
There’s much to be welcomed in the review’s recommendations. A simplification of the rules, regulations and processes will help everyone, including hard-pressed construction firms which, under BSF, were weighed down by bureaucracy and unnecessary costs.
But we mustn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. The ambition of BSF — to upgrade the school estate, most of which is beyond its design life — was a good one. Key to any new approach is how we square that circle when so much of the school capital budget has been lost.
It’s good to see the review talking about new schools being “fit for purpose”. We need to make sure the government takes this seriously — there’s no point wasting money on schools that don’t work. The Department for Education needs to develop a standard, which would allow for some consensus on what makes a decent learning environment.
Such a standard would ensure that all schools are built to a level that positively supports teaching, learning, sport and recreation. The benchmarking in the review creates an ideal opportunity to begin that debate.
Standardised design elements have a role to play, but quality is key. A robust post-occupancy evaluation programme of new and refurbished schools will help keep standards high.
When it comes to a focus on “fit for purpose”, however, the review quite rightly highlights the need for a much better procurement process. Few of us would disagree with such a conclusion.
The review calls for the establishment of a new central body to provide support during the procurement, design and construction process.
We do need a central body to help administrate and support clients and contractors handling multi-million pound projects, monitor progress, develop intelligence on the school estate and ensure public money is being wisely spent. But there’s no need for such a body to lead to a complex and bureaucratic system, which was one of the drivers for BSF becoming so delayed and expensive. Simplicity and transparency should be the watchwords. Light touch should not become heavy hand.
Local authorities must be given a role to ensure new or refurbished schools respond to local priorities and meet local needs. Contractors have a wealth of experience, which could and should be properly harnessed, but have they always been listened to?
We also need to be realistic about cost savings to school buildings, which the review says should be in the region of 30%. Our members have always maintained that if we get the system right, there are myriad ways to save on costs and resources.
The work done at Campsmount Technology College, in Doncaster, shows that savings can be made if a new approach is taken. But this was a project that was under intense scrutiny and the savings have to be replicable across all types of schemes.
Whether the same methods, systems and materials can be applied to all school building and refurbishment projects in the future should be debated.
Delivering savings will come in part from contractors themselves, which are going to need to show new levels of value if they want to win school building and refurbishment contracts in the future. They will need to win the trust of local authorities and other clients, and demonstrate an approach which emphatically supports them, as well as understanding the needs of children, teachers and communities.
Industry will have to show an understanding of both public and education policy, new types of funding packages and the various funding streams. Respectful relationships will be key to winning new work.
A track record in community involvement, such as Wilmott Dixon’s commitment to our Big School Makeover projects, is also likely to enhance perception and understanding within companies of real client need.
In the meantime, we await the secretary of state’s response to the James Review. We have a new opportunity to get the direction of travel right. An improved system will require, as highlighted by Sebastian James, a “significant change in culture and practice” and the right structures at both local and national level. That’s a big ask, so let’s hope that Michael Gove takes it seriously, and that we get our much-needed school building programme on track.
Ty Goddard is the director of the British Council for School Environments