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Building knowledge

Atkins | 05 Aug 2014 | Comments

If you hope to improve your education system, you need the best possible facilities to produce the best possible results. The lessons learned in the UK have something to teach us all.

“Education, education, education”: it was the mantra that announced Tony Blair’s arrival as UK prime minister back in 1997. Blair’s commitment to improving not only the standards within the classroom but also the quality of the classroom itself was remarkable in its ambition. The Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme promised to renew every secondary school in England by 2020, at a cost of £45 billion.

And while the programme never ran its entire course, it still had some startling effects: primarily a huge increase in funding, largely focused on building flagship Academy-style schools designed to impact communities, many of which were neglected and depressed.

The resulting new stock looked great – some schools built during this period of higher spending even ended up shortlisted for various architectural prizes – but did little to address the UK’s future education needs by increasing the number of school places.

“There were some fantastic schools that were built at that time,” says Andrew Shepherd, sector head with UK construction giant, Laing O’Rourke, one of Atkins’ partners in its school building efforts. “But what happened towards the end of the BSF days is that the market found a sensible medium ground, so we need to make sure we don’t lose the lessons we learned from that period.”

Fast forward to 2008 and many of the problems that this campaign promised to fix still remained: a combination of budget cuts, local and central government inertia, and pressure from competing priorities (not to mention a change of government and a population boom) have left the UK’s school estate in 2014 short of capacity and in need of repair. Estimates put the shortfall in school places at around 200,000, much of it centred in the south east.

For Philip Watson, who heads the education sector for Atkins in the UK, the current focus is on working with government to deliver on its priority school building programme (PSBP). As of May 2014, 28 schools were either under construction or open as part of the PSBP, while design work has begun at 234 schools – 90 per cent of the programme. Work on all schools is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2017, two years earlier than originally planned.

The framework for the new effort has been developed by Sebastian James, the chairman of UK electronics firm Dixons, who was asked to review schools spending and procurement process by the current government.

“He produced the James Review and what he suggested was that if you standardised school design, reduced the total footprint involved and took out all the wastage, you could procure schools at about 60 per cent of the cost of what they were costing under BSF,” Watson says. “That means that if your average BSF school was costing about £2,200-£2,300 per square-metre, the priority schools building programme is down at £1,450.”

This reflects the new financial realities facing the UK’s Department of Education: how do you improve facilities and build new places in an environment where every pound spent on schools is a pound taken from defence, welfare or health?

In response to the James Review, the government says the procurement process will follow strict guidelines:

  • five batches of schools in the PSBP will be delivered via PF2, the government’s new approach to funding projects in collaboration with the private sector;
  • these batches contain 46 schools and have a funding requirement of £700 million;
  • the projects will be procured by the government’s Education Funding Agency and will use centralised procurement to maximise economies of scale and expertise; and
  • lessons learned from previous programmes will be used to streamline the procurement process.

Central to the effort to deliver a significant increase in school places at a sustainable cost is the idea of developing a standard template for school construction that can, with limited customisation, be applied across the board. The result, Watson says, should be a scalable system whereby materials can be bought in bulk at a lower cost, and design costs are minimised thanks to builders following roughly the same plan for each new school.

“It’s a simple message from procurement,” says Watson. “Here you are contractors: This is a base that we’re looking for. We’re sure you can do it better but we think if you did it something like this, you’d deliver the kind of quality environment that we need and it would be cost effective.”

It’s a fine idea, says, Laing O’Rourke’s Shepherd. But standardisation does present hurdles to be overcome.

“Designers and engineers have to respond to the local environment. If you are building a school in Devon, near the seafront, for instance, that building is going to have a lot of issues with a harsh maritime environment; meanwhile, a school in central Birmingham next to a main railway line is going to have different issues, particularly around noise; and then again, a school built into a hill in Yorkshire is going to have its own needs and challenges.

“You’ve got to respond to the local needs and demands. That’s where it’s important to have good consultants and advisers identifying those issues and responding in the most appropriate way.”

Despite the variations in environment, the hallmarks of a good school building are easy to identify: “It needs to have good light and be an acoustically solid building, so it’s not going to be noisy, or too cold or too hot,” Shepherd says. “Getting those right means the school is not going to be a disruptive environment when people are moving around and it all adds up to a good environment for learning.”

As part of the new approach, builders and designers have to deliver new secondary schools that are roughly 15 per cent smaller and primary schools five per cent smaller than the current average footprint. Adhering to those guidelines also means that designers and contractors have to work hard to find solutions to some of the more knotty problems.

It’s a challenge Watson says he relishes: “It places a lot of emphasis on multi-discipline designing, so you have to look at things in the round and not take a blinkered, single-disciplined approach to things because all the elements are inter-connected.

“For example, if you have bigger windows to increase the amount of daylight, how do you stop it over-heating in the summer? You need a shading device; that affects the architecture and the cost, and it also might then affect how much daylight gets in. When you look at it like that, it all goes round in a big circle so you have to have a holistic – and realistic – view of the building.”

Ultimately, delivering on a promise to improve a school’s facilities must take into account disruption to pupils’ education.

“If you’re 16 years old and sitting your GCSEs, and the builders are creating a racket, that isn’t a good place to be in,” says Shepherd. “That’s not giving you the best opportunity in life, so anything that good design, good engineering and good construction can do to minimise that disruption is a huge win.”

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