Happy Birthday Priority Schools

The announcement of the first wave of the government’s Priority Schools Build Programme (PSBP) has just reached its 5th birthday, with the first batches of successful schools announced back in May 2012. This announcement was much heralded at the time and saw a marked divergence away from bespoke design under the previous Building Schools for the Future (BSF) delivery model to a more streamlined and efficient model. It was regarded as a more austere and efficient delivery solution – more bang for your buck in straitened times – but has it been successful, what are the impacts and does this model have a future?

Whilst the previous BSF programme created some inspirational and creative learning environments the scheme was widely criticised for delivering expensive solutions that took too long to procure and also targeted the wrong areas for improvement. These criticisms were probably well founded with spaces being delivered at a construction cost in excess of £3000/m2 and in areas that could get the grant applications organised the quickest – not the necessarily the areas that needed it the most.

PSBP was going to change all of this by creating consistent design specifications and space standards to revitalise schools that had been appropriately means tested, to ensure those with the greatest need were served first. Procurement was organised nationally by the newly formed Education Funding Agency (EFA) who asked national and regional contractors to bid for the work in Waves or batches over very short periods of 6 weeks.

This process, whilst driving large efficiencies into the design and cutting the cost of delivery by nearly 50%, also created a dilemma for designers. Only through standardising school design, procurement and construction can such large efficiencies be made. Whilst there are many iterations around the EFAs specification, there is no doubt that standard spaces have created a large volume of new schools that look and feel the same. In some quarters of the building industry – particularly with pure educationalists – this has been heavily criticised. There is a proven link between inspiring education spaces and the positive behavioural and educational performance of pupils, but I believe this criticism needs to be viewed in the wider context of the existing education estate.

I have been lucky enough to design and deliver dozens of standardised schools with some very talented teams, through the PSBP in the last 5 years; and have also been lucky enough to revisit some of those schools in use. The transformation and impact that these new spaces have had on the pupils, their pride in their new school and their academic performance is very evident. Those who criticise these new schools for being bland and uninspiring, need to understand that for pupils who were being taught in dark, cramped, poorly ventilated, leaking and drafty classrooms, the new PSBP schools are inspiring.

As an industry, we often get caught up and carried away by the shiny, complicated, big and expensive new project that we work on. We must not lose sight of the fact that having a space that is clean, bright and well ventilated for many is transformational – it just depends on your perspective.

So, I say happy birthday PSBP and let’s raise a glass to the next waves of new transformational schools!