Back in July 2010, when education secretary Michael Gove scrapped the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme, the announcement was understandably met with outrage from local authorities deprived of the cash to renew crumbling school buildings, and the construction supply chains geared up to deliver much needed improvements.
But Gove’s department, then and since, argued vociferously that there was an extensive silver lining to the cancellation - the chance to review and learn lessons from an era of school building that, despite successes, was littered with outrageous costs and wasteful, inefficient designs.
Without sharing conclusions from years of design development with industry, how can officials guarantee elements with the biggest impact are preserved for future schools?
This supposed commitment to learning from the past is what makes it so damning that Gove’s department, for months, failed to make public a major post-occupancy review of new and refurbished school buildings carried out by delivery body Partnerships for Schools (PfS).
The findings, which Building reveals this week after obtaining a leaked copy of the report, contain invaluable information anyone seeking to develop school designs on a vastly reduced budget. They show that projects were generally successful in creating school environments, but highlight where design features worked and failed, and expose the poor energy performance of many recently rebuilt or renewed schools.
The government’s failure to publish the report, despite pressure from industry and schools body the British Council for School Environments, has been heavily criticised. So it is even more worrying to see it holding back still more post occupancy information - this time on the critical link between school buildings and educational attainment.
The government may have its own political motives for not wanting to look too publicly at the Building Schools for the Future programme - which despite obvious failings, did much to improve the schools estate.
Of course, if there is a demonstrable link between school buildings and educational attainment - a subject of long and intense public debate - it would fuel demands for cash from schools still further.
But whatever its post-occupancy reviews show, the government should recognise that its aims for school building in an era of austerity are vastly undermined by not allowing access to this kind of information.
Without sharing conclusions from years of design development with industry, how can officials guarantee that the elements with the biggest impact are preserved for future schools?
Sebastian James made this point repeatedly in his government-commissioned review into school building, calling for a structured system of post occupancy review and arguing that under Building Schools for the Future “the failure to look at the whole picture meant it was impossible for the people involved (who seemed both capable and committed) to deliver the highest possible quality programme at the lowest possible cost.”
This government seems to be ignoring that message. This is of huge concern, because if it does not embrace it, it risks squandering its limited funds on buildings that, with high energy costs and the prospect of later remodelling work, could drain education funding for generations to come.
Sarah Richardson, deputy editor
5 July 2012
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