Just another brick in the wall

In 2007, Education Support Partnership, then known as Teacher Support Network, and the British Council for School Environments (BCSE) conducted a joint survey of 530 teachers on school buildings. This report summarises our findings and the subsequent recommendations we made to make building investment even more beneficial for schools.

The survey clearly demonstrated that poor facilities can have a damaging impact on the performance and wellbeing of pupils and school staff. Poor acoustics can hamper communication and affect teachers’ confidence, for example, whilst poor temperature control can affect concentration, damaging teaching and learning alike.

Investment in school buildings had increased significantly in the period leading up to the report. School annual capital spending was already above £6 billion and was set to rise to over £8 billion by 2010-11, but it was vital that every penny was spent wisely.

In June 2008, Teacher Support Network and BCSE hosted a roundtable meeting with key stakeholders involved in the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme. The attendees - including architects, teaching unions and the DCSF – identified a number of problems that needed to be addressed.

Problems on the supply side - architects and sources of support

BSF architects said that the demands during the procurement process were too great and that they felt rushed into producing less ambitious, poorer-quality designs without adequate consultation with schools. One said that he felt “bruised by the process” and that at one point he even had to design seven schools in just 14 weeks.

The architects also said that they had found that some teachers’ ideas lacked vision; focusing on how to improve their existing building rather than imagining the ideal. Both architects and teachers found it difficult to envisage and plan for new ways of teaching and learning. One contributor said: “unless you get quality engagement, you’ll never get a quality end product.”

Architects also argued that BSF’s aims were potentially unrealistic, given the information and funds available. They said that it was impossible to design a learning environment that could accommodate the likely changes over a 25-year period, such as a heating system that could accommodate decades of climate change.

Lastly, it was also argued that schools were failing to coordinate their design with nearby facilities and use other sources of funding in order to make their new building as beneficial as possible to the school and surrounding area.

Problems on the client side - teachers, pupils and the wider community

Representatives from trade unions and other teaching groups pointed out that the everyday pressures on teachers were already immense. Teacher Support Network noted that an alarming number of teachers contacted them for help with workload-related problems. Therefore, the wellbeing and effectiveness of teachers – particularly headteachers – would suffer without extra support to meet BSF’s demands. Any lack of engagement or enthusiasm from headteachers would also reduce opportunities for involvement by other staff and the wider school community.

Teachers were unlikely to offer a design vision for the school because they had little or no experience of similar projects and few opportunities to learn from the experiences of others.

Despite the courses run to support them by the National College for School Leadership, teachers with or without experience felt that they still lacked the information needed to make the right long-term design decisions for their school. As a result, architects said that teachers invariably ask for ‘flexibility’ as an underlying design feature. This, combined with the general lack of quality consultation, meant that new buildings risk lacking personalisation, identity, purpose or an overall sense of community ownership and pride.

Attendees were concerned that the above factors would deter some schools with poor facilities from even choosing to participate in BSF.

How to help schools through better building investment

These problems needed to be alleviated so that BSF had the best chance to benefit teachers and pupils in need. The report recommended:

  • Far greater interaction between architects and teachers throughout the process and action to ensure that architects were not overburdened. The procurement process needed to give greater consideration to the aggregate workload and costs of bidders. Further reduction of the sample schemes and more time for the design stage were options that also needed to be considered.
  • A named individual in each procurement process responsible for ensuring that teachers were fully engaged and supported from beginning to end. To allow this, the report said teachers should be given extra support to free up time for active involvement in the process.