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Building or refurbishing a new school? Then remember that cost is not the same as value

Responding to Call 22 of our 25 Calls campaign by Diarmaid Lawlor, Ian Wall says our ambitions for young people's experiences of learning will only be met if we abandon the current approach to procuring school buildings. 

Call 22: Build wellbeing into the design of our learning spaces to show young people they are truly valued

Diarmaid Lawlor’s description of the centrality of equity and excellence as the bedrock for education is correct. Workers in our education system strive for this every day.

But, as he points out, the experience of schools as built environments is often less than satisfactory for children, to which he could have added teachers, parents and the community.

He proposes that pupils should be involved in the client team, that more, and more flexible, space is required in schools, and that we should rethink the use of outdoor space. To do this “requires a radical change”, he states.

Again, he's quite right. But bringing in the children (and parents) and using the valuable fruits of social and pedagogical research and practical experience will not take place to any advantage unless the ‘radical’ change is to abandon the current approach to procuring buildings.

The Scottish Government and local authorities are well advanced with the Schools for the Future programme, investing £1.18 billion from 2009 till 2020. More than 90 new schools, of 117, have been completed with a grand total of 750 replaced, rebuilt or refurbished.

Unfortunately, rather than being the flagship for the approach that Diarmaid advocates, the primary concern has been ‘cost effective solutions’ or – as we might normally say – cheap.

The crassest expression of this approach was delivered by a UK Education Ministry in 2012 when it was announced that the next 261 schools for England and Wales would be an arbitrary 15% smaller. Templates were published telling architects that new schools should have "no curves", ceilings should be left bare and buildings should be clad in nothing more expensive than render or metal panels above head height. “As much repetition as possible should be used, to keep costs down.”

Although this is not the approach here, the same priority is given to cost in Scotland’s current programme, with a predetermined cost at the start of the project being the controlling factor. While that is the case it is unlikely that Diarmaid’s hopes for young people, or ours, will be met.

An approach that would deliver the far better results for schools and all their users is to begin with preparing the brief for the building. This should draw upon all that Diarmid describes and involve the staff, pupils, parents and local authority in determining the educational, social and health outcomes sought. It should include the areas necessary for them to flourish and the flexibility for the space to be reconfigured, changed and extended, indoor and outdoor, as teaching practice and society develops.

Only when that process is complete should the professional team commence work and obtain this client group's approval to the resulting designs. From that process will emerge a cost. Only then should that cost be subject to value engineering, thus ensuring we have schools that meet our needs whilst controlling their costs within those clear objectives.

A final point worth considering: new schools will exist till well past 2050, the target date for Scotland’s world-leading climate change legislation. Schools will be required to be CO2 neutral to meet our targets – and the current demands of many pupils.

Professor Ian Wall is a Visiting Professor at Scott Sutherland School of Architecture and Built Environment, a Fellow of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

He is responding here to Call 22 of our 25 Calls campaign, by Diarmaid Lawlor, "Build wellbeing into the design of our learning spaces to show young people they are truly valued."

About the author

Professor Ian Wall is a Visiting Professor at Scott Sutherland School of Architecture and Built Environment

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Call 22

Build wellbeing into design of learning spaces to show young people they are truly valued

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25 Calls campaign

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