Is the “golden era” for UK schools over?

March 11, 2010

TimRuddTim Rudd is senior Researcher at Futurelab. The opinions expressed are his own.

Whatever happens in the general election, the “Golden Age” of new school buildings programmes is expected to change significantly next year.

The funding commitment to what was originally envisaged as a 55-billion-pound Building Schools for the Future programme will no doubt be re-evaluated, leaving a string of questions.

What has the actual impact been from this investment, the largest in UK education for the past 50 years? Have the benefits been solid enough to invest further? Which areas will miss out if schemes are trimmed back now? Will it matter?

From many organisations involved in BSF the argument is clear. The new chairman of the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE), Paul Finch, has claimed that cuts to the programme would harm the prospects of “millions” of young people.

Low standard, depressing buildings lead to low morale and lack of motivation for pupils and teachers, he has claimed. He also points to the inequalities which will result from a scaling down of work, with a third of local authorities yet to have benefited from BSF, and the unfairness of a situation where schools in neighbouring districts will be in very different positions when it comes to attracting pupils and staff.

It’s hard to argue with the idea that a high-quality, well-designed and modern environment is likely to be conducive to attitudes to school and to health – although it should also be said that more evidence is needed.

CABE itself plans to research the impact of school environments on performance. However, assessing impacts is fraught with complexities and there is a need to avoid over simplified accounts based on measures that may not account for all of the aims of the proramme and individual schools visions.

What we can be more certain about is the progress of the BSF programme so far and what it has meant for young people now and in the future.

The boom period has delivered buildings with better light and space, the pervasive communal atrium, along with investment in Wi-fi and ICT suites.

Although the physical appearance and style of some schools may have changed however, UK schools in general are essentially still set out along traditional lines and with existing pedagogical practice informing design, echoing those of the Victorian era.

With a few notable exceptions, the approach to learning, with pupils going to classrooms in a fixed building at fixed times each day, sitting in rows at desks facing a teacher and still appears to dominate.

If there is an issue of return on investment, it is not around whether schools now look different but whether they are different. Surely investment on this scale deserves to lead to fundamental and lasting change in how our schools deliver learning and education for children now and the future?

Despite initiatives seeking to empower learners and place them at the heart of the learning process by giving them greater choice and voice, there has not been a fundamental shift in practice.

We know that certain socio-technological changes are likely to persist that mean learning in society in general will continue to be more collaborative, with greater communication enabling working together across fixed geographical boundaries, and where niche markets and interests can be developed readily with a range of individuals and organisations.

The ability to find, store, create, edit and publish content will mean that learners will increasingly have to develop skills and competencies that put them in control of the learning process and are know how best to apply the various tools and mechanisms to help them make sense of knowledge, yet we do not seem to be seeing notable changes in practice, nor are we seeing this reflected in design of learning spaces.

For real change to take place, it not only needs to be rooted in the culture of today and informed by the trends of tomorrow, but the specific concerns identified and articulated at a local level, need to become embedded in daily practices and relationships.

For this reason, the route to a truly shared transformational vision, and then to achievable, measurable changes in practice, can only be through greater co-design with pupils. Seeing the various building programmes as learning experiences in themselves and an opportunity to remodel educational practice, and subsequently the form and function of individual schools, should be at the heart of the process.

This type of co-design could draw on existing research and successful practice, while engaging users and designers in a critical and challenging dialogue without shying away from issues of feasibility and accountability.

Most crucially, it would not only apply to the built environment, but also to what is meant to happen within it, mainly the curriculum and the emerging relationships between learners, practitioners and the local community.

The whole educational experience could then become a constructive dialogue, constantly drawing on ideas and issues which are fully owned and understood, rather than imposed through convoluted procurement and design strategies detached from the end-users’ actions, choices and priorities.

The central issues surrounding any policy around future learning spaces or schools has to be a greater and better thought through consideration of the ways in which learning and teaching could, and indeed should change in the coming decades.

Education needs to respond to all manner of social, cultural and technological changes already happening and which are likely to be accentuated in the near future.

The failure to keep these issue at the heart of any debate diverts conversations away from the crucial consideration of what learning will or should be like – and how can we avoid creating not only spaces but also approaches to education that are outdated and out of kilter with the outside world.


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you build a new school. but you have torn down an old school. many old girls and boys can be motivated to protect their schools. and nothing beats the pride of belonging to an old and venerable institution gm

Posted by green mann | Report as abusive

It makes me want to weep that the mere spending of money can be considered to amount to a “golden age”. It would be a golden age if we started pushing up standards and keep doing so for several consecutive decades. Our schools need discipline and academic rigour. Giving more money to an educational establishment that doesn’t believe in educational excellence is a waste of time.

Posted by Oliver Chettle | Report as abusive