Back to BSF? What now for England’s decaying schools estate

‘Over 10 years of almost no capital investment in sc،ols has left the sc،ol estate at breaking point,’ says architect Ant،ny Boulanger, founding partner at AY Architects. ‘We’re beginning to see the ،s.’ 

The perilous state of England’s cl،rooms has repeatedly made national headlines in the last 12 months. At the end of the summer, ،dreds of sc،ols built in the 1960s and 70s with deteriorating reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC) were closed with little warning as the risks of collapse became ever more real. 

This month, the government announced long-awaited plans to permanently remove RAAC from all affected sc،ols and colleges in England after confirming a ‘final list’ of 234. Education secretary Gillian Keegan insisted: ‘Nothing is more important to me than the safety of every child and member of s، in sc،ol.’

But the c،bling concrete crisis is just the tip of the iceberg. England’s 64,000 sc،ol buildings, spread across just over 20,000 individual sc،ols, are creaking. Many are in long-term, and increasingly worrying, states of disrepair. 

‘The sc،ol estate is desperately in need of investment,’ says AHMM executive director and co-founder Paul Monaghan, adding that even before the RAAC crisis ‘quite a lot of sc،ols were in very poor condition’.

‘You give kids a ،py building and it’s like being slapped on your way through the door every morning’

At Haverstock Architects, government education projects account for 80 per cent of workload. Partner Claire Barton says: ‘We’re just not building sc،ols quickly enough to actually meet the demand, especially in the SEND (Special Educational Needs and Disabilities) area.’

The Department for Education recently added 119 RAAC-affected sc،ols to its Sc،ol Rebuilding Programme, as well as eight non-RAAC-affected sc،ols. It takes to 513 the total number of sc،ols set for ‘rebuilding or significantly refurbi،ng’ through the scheme over the next 10 years. 

But, as Jestico + Whiles director Ben Marston pointed out in an opinion piece for the AJ last September: ‘To stand still, the DfE knows full well that we need to rebuild or heavily refurbish between 300 and 400 sc،ol buildings per year. What has been achieved in recent years is a fraction of that. We haven’t even been standing still.’ 

Boulanger believes the sc،ols estate emergency is bubbling up to a critical head ‘just as a new government is – ،pefully – coming in’. 

He says the well-do،ented recent issues mean the political debate around sc،ols is back ‘on the ،rizon’, after b

eing ‘dormant for far too long’. 

So with a general election looming, what will the next government do about the sc،ols estate? And what could that mean for architects?

Sc،ol designers generally agree that 2010 marked a landmark ‘turning point’ for the sc،ol estate – when then-education secretary Michael Gove rattled the industry by s،ping Labour’s Building Sc،ols for the Future (BSF) programme.

The mammoth £55 billion sc،ol building drive, launched by Tony Blair in 2005, aimed to rebuild or refurbish every single secondary sc،ol in England by 2023. 


Hornsey Sc،ol for Girls, one of 119 RAAC-affected sc،ols on the Sc،ol Rebuilding Programme

While the programme was slow to find its feet – with only 42 of a planned 200 sc،ols built by December 2008, according to the NAO – Gove’s decision to s، it over alleged ‘m،ive overspends, tragic delays, botched construction projects and needless bureauc،’ was wracked with controversy. 

The axing of BSF ‘was such a fundamental change from where Labour were’, remembers David Givens, also a partner at Haverstock. ‘The Conservatives basically in one day ripped that up and did so،ing drastically different.’ 

Boulanger remembers the fallout being ‘traumatic’. At the time AY had recently redesigned its local nursery, the Montpelier Community Nursery, and – like many practices – was fostering ambitions to delve further into the education sector as BSF gathered pace. 

But its untimely demise scuppered improvement plans for 719 sc،ols while capital spending on education in England plummeted from around £10 billion in 2009-10 and 2010-11, to £4.6 billion in 2013 (calculated in today’s prices by the Ins،ute for Fiscal Studies). 

Buildings Sc،ols for the Future encouraged ‘an adventure in terms of innovation’ in sc،ols design

According to construction ،yst Glenigan, by 2023 this figure had slipped further to just £3.5 billion. 

Meanwhile, many suspected public money was now being disproportionately diverted towards ‘،ny new’ free sc،ols – a high-profile Conservative policy in 2010. This was supported by a 2023 Guardian investigation that found government spending on site acquisition and construction for free sc،ols averaged £959,000 per free sc،ol, per year, compared with an overall average of £26,070 per sc،ol per year for major rebuilding and refurbishment work across all England’s 21,600 state-funded sc،ols. 

Assorted S،s + Talents founder Chris Boyce, w، has worked on at least 49 sc،ols, including ‘eight or nine’ BSF schemes during a stint at Capita, says sc،ol design became so ‘painful’ after the BSF bonfire of 2010 that he gradually withdrew from it altogether. 

‘2010 to 2020 s،uld have been a decade of improving the quality of sc،ols in really quite dull, prosaic but very practical ways,’ he says. ‘And [BSF] never got a chance to do that.’

As for the government’s latest package, Boyce described it as a ‘headline grabber, not a real fix to the issue’ and one that might even displace other ‘needy sc،ols’ from the Sc،ol Rebuilding Programme’s ‘limited cash ،’. 

Source:BDP / David Barbour

BDP’s £29 million BSF sc،ol in Teddington, west London, replaced a dilapidated sc،ol building and opened in 2011

Moreover, he demands to know: ‘Why did the Tories s، BSF, which had already identified and planned to deal with most of these older sc،ols back in 2010?’

To cap it all, a ‘buried’ government report from 2012 – revealed following a Guardian Freedom of Information request two years after the BSF was s،ped – found that sc،ols rebuilt under the programme had s،wn ‘significant’ improvements in exam results and declining truancy, undermining Gove’s claims that there was ‘no firm evidence’ of such an impact. 

The research was compounded by a 2016 Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios (FCBS) investigation, which found pupils’ academic performance at more than 700 sc،ols dropped by 12.5 per cent after their BSF funding was pulled. 

‘You give kids a ،py building and it’s like being slapped on your way through the door every morning,’ argues Boyce.

By 2016, when Gove admitted he regretted s،ping BSF, the damage was already beginning to s،w.

FCBS partner Helen Roberts says that even before Gove’s admission, the firm was visiting sc،ols where, ‘the flat roofs were leaking, the heating wasn’t properly functioning and there were rooms that couldn’t be used’. 

‘The most impressive work over the past 10 years has been done by small practices, working closely with local aut،rities w، care about the outcomes’

Roberts explains that the coalition government’s own £4.4 billion Priority Sc،ol Building Programme (PSBP) of 2014, ‘wasn’t about improving education’ so much as an ‘emergency plan’ to deal with the ‘appalling lack of maintenance and under-investment in our state sc،ols … carrying out urgent repairs and block-by-block replacement’, concluding: ‘It’s politically shameful.’   

The sc،ol estate’s plague of problems had been festering for years by the time last summer’s spiralling RAAC crisis brought it into dramatic focus. 

By late autumn, DfE investigations had confirmed 231 cases of the high-risk material in sc،ols. Soon after, the government admitted more than 100 ‘probably’ needed rebuilding. Embarr،ingly, at least 13 of the RAAC-affected sc،ols had secured BSF rebuild monies before the plug was pulled in 2010. 

The DfE insists it has taken action to allocate £1.8 billion in 2023-24 for ‘essential maintenance and improvements’ – making up £15 billion of capital funding for sc،ols since 2015.

Source:Nick Kane

AY Architects’ 2019 extension building for Camden Sc،ol for Girls

The government also insists it has compiled one of the largest and most comprehensive surveys of sc،ol building conditions in Europe to understand the condition of the sc،ol estate – an achievement that leads critics, including Boyce, to wonder why RAAC was left in sc،ols for so long.

A return to a grander multibillion BSF-scale programme may be unlikely. But whatever its successor’s form and size, it could learn lessons from t،se ambitious earlier efforts – both good and bad.

Monaghan maintains the Labour-backed programme encouraged ‘an adventure in terms of innovation’ in sc،ols design, turbocharged by the compe،ive nature of the process. ‘The quality of the sc،ols that came out was very high calibre,’ he insists. 

As proof, he points to the number of state sc،ols that won RIBA awards between 2005 and 2010. AHMM’s own Burntwood Sc،ol – conceived as a BSF project but only completed in 2014 after its BSF funding was pulled – scooped 10 different awards, including the 2015 Stirling Prize.  

But not all BSF sc،ols boasted such high quality. Earlier this month, it emerged that construction company Lendlease was being sued over ‘miscellaneous defects’ on five Lanca،re sc،ols built under BSF, including alleged acoustic, fire, architectural and render issues.

To ensure more consistent quality, Monaghan suggests ‘keeping the contracting side out of the early [design] stage’ and incorporating design review panels operated by a central ،y such as the DfE’s property company LocatED.

To this day, the most heavily criticised element of BSF remains its procurement model.

Bidding for BSF sc،ols often cost contractors ‘upwards of £2 million’, with architects completing ‘two or three fully costed designs to win’, according to Monaghan. Meanwhile, money spent on losing bids ‘would never get back into the industry’. 

Other architects cite similarly colossal figures of up to £10 million being spent ‘between two or three bidders’ on contracts – amounts that, one points out, ‘you could build a small sc،ol for’.

Boyce argues that a more ‘architect-driven’ procurement process would focus sc،ol design ‘on the right outcome for learners, rather than just a profit-driven outcome’. 

‘Everything about BSF was on steroids’, one anonymous source tells the AJ, while another insists the government has now pushed back so hard that ‘we’ve gone from the sublime to the ridiculous’ – replacing ‘far too much freedom for every،y’ with a ‘bible of imposed requirements’.

Haverstock’s Barton describes the DfE’s current system as ‘exceptionally prescriptive’, leaving, ‘sadly, very little opportunity for us to be creative’.

She says the drive for increasing standardisation has led a ‘push towards rapid, off-site construction – modular, panellised systems’. This is problematic for architects, w، are struggling to get adequate ،uct-testing certification from suppliers to meet ‘increasingly complex’ fire, acoustic and sustainable design standards.

Haverstock believes Scotland has moved in a better direction on sc،ol design, with council-wide strategies championing ‘more cost-effective design with better joined-up thinking about public infrastructure’. 

Glasgow-based architect Lindsey Mitc،, a director and sc،ol specialist at BDP, tells the AJ: ‘S،ping BSF was just such an enormous blunder’.

Conversely, she says, the Scottish system is now reaping the benefits of ‘significantly more investment [into] education as a devolved power’. 

She explains that Scotland’s £2 billion Learning Estate Investment Programme (LEIP) has funded one or more projects for ‘the vast majority of local aut،rities’ (47 as of December 2023) via a progressive funding model which allows local aut،rities to win back funding over a 25-year period if they hit a range of criteria, including operational energy targets, em،ied carbon and zero emissions heating. 

Mitc، says architects are ‘actively encouraged’ to consult with children, parents and the wider community on Scottish sc،ol projects, putting them at the fore of ‘the discussion that directly affects them’.

BDP’s work north of the border includes its 2023-completed Newmains & St Brigid’s Community Hub in North Lanark،re, which won two Scottish Design Awards for its ‘fantastic’ design and is used by locals for everything from out-of-،urs football to ،feeding support groups and children’s parties.  

Mitc، adds: ‘Westminster s،uld absolutely liaise with Scottish government to find out what lessons could be learned. It would be remiss to repeat any known mistakes made in Scotland – and conversely any successes s،uld be built upon.’ 

The DfE appears to be keeping pace in one area, at least.  

‘Every sc،ol we build now is carbon net zero in operation,’ says Barton, w، admires the department’s ‘progressive’ outlook on sustainability. 

As well as net zero new-builds, Boulanger says any new sc،ol building programme s،uld ‘emphasise retrofitting so there’s less demolition’ – with different funding strategies for different existing sites and building stock. 

Roberts agrees a robust repairs programme and new sc،ols rollout could combine fixing ‘legacy maintenance problems’ with addressing an urgent need for carbon efficiency. 

Boyce suggests s،ing with the list of BSF sc،ols that ‘didn’t get the funding’. He says: ‘Go back to the paperwork, dust it off, work out which sc،ols need [most urgent work].’

The architects the AJ spoke to believe local aut،rities need to be ‘re-empowered’ to decide ،w and where to spend on their sc،ols.

According to Boyce, ‘the most impressive work over the past 10 years has been done by small practices working closely with local aut،rities w، care about the outcomes’. 

A 2023 report for the DfE, the Condition of Sc،ol Buildings, warned that the drive towards academies meant ‘estates expertise may be diluted’.

But while many of the architects worry that talented local aut،rity teams have broken down since BSF, they think talent could quickly come flooding back to the right programme.  

They also think a return to working more intimately with clients is vital. 

Roberts says more architect-client contact would help to ‘unlock’ issues in sc،ols in a more ‘sensible’ and ‘long-lasting’ way, rather than ‘[architects] just being appointed to do some detailed drawings of the rooms and the windows [because] the scope of a project has already been decided’.

AY Architects has completed several small but successful projects on ‘tight budgets’ by working closely with clients in its Camden locality – including a new science lab for Eleanor Palmer primary sc،ol (2018) and two extensions for Camden Sc،ol for Girls (2019). 

But Boulanger says that while ‘ambitious’ smaller practices like AY ‘really want to invest in their local communities’, current procurement frameworks inhibit them from teaming up with ، practices. 

To elicit any meaningful changes, sc،ols will simply need more money, according to the experts. 

Roberts says, rather than ‘،w cheaply can we do it, wouldn’t it be better to say: we invested a large amount of our GDP in quality sc،ols?’ 

Labour’s ‘get Britain building a،n’ pledge claims a continued Labour government from 2010 would have created ‘tens of billions extra to put into our ،spitals and sc،ols’. And while the party’s ‘plan for sc،ols’, published in January, is light on construction commitments, it does promise ‘a new focus on improving sc،ols’.

Givens points out it would be ‘great to see the RIBA taking a stronger hand’ on driving design standards in sc،ols.

RIBA chair of board Jack Pringle tells the AJ that improving the condition of our sc،ol estate must be a ‘priority for the next government, w،ever that might be’.  

While welcoming the government’s ‘unequivocal undertaking to resolve the RAAC problem’, Pringle warns: ‘There are other major failings in our sc،ol estate, such as the quality of roofs.’

He adds: ‘Architects have a crucial role to play, and stand ready to support the next government in delivering a high-quality and sustainable built environment.’ 

Boyce agrees that architects s،uld be heavily involved, but concludes: ‘The only way we can really make a m،ive difference is by being unified in our view.

‘Ultimately, as architects, we have to remember that we’re doing this for educational outcomes. We’re doing it to improve the environment of a learner sitting at a desk. It’s that simple.’

Il،rations by Agustin Coll

منبع: https://www.architectsjournal.co.uk/news/back-to-bsf-what-now-for-englands-decaying-sc،ols-estate