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Schools put to the test

Brian Green

Schools are being squeezed by more pupils, decaying stock and funding pressures. Where does that leave construction?

What have free schools meant for funding? Barking's Riverside free school (primary) by Surface to Air working with modular construction.
What have free schools meant for funding? Barking's Riverside free school (primary) by Surface to Air working with modular construction.

The National Audit Office publication on capital funding for schools has beamed attention back onto the urgent need for greater investment in the buildings in which youngsters in England are educated.

Not only does the report highlight the stiff challenge to find places for rapidly growing numbers of school children, it also places in stark relief the effort needed to bring large numbers of crumbling schools up to scratch. 

It suggests that £6.7 billion in hard cash is needed ‘to return all school buildings to satisfactory or better condition’.

Politics naturally adds its own layer of complexity to an already testing task. The detail of the report clearly suggests the job has been made that much harder because the government’s flagship free schools initiative is gobbling up more of the funding pie than was originally planned or expected. The 2010 estimate was to spend £900 million on opening 315 free schools. By March 2015 it had spent double that and opened 310.

This all comes at a time when capital funds are tight for schools. The capital budget for the Department for Education, which funds English schools, has fallen dramatically. In 2009-10 it was £7.4 billion. It fell to £3.6 billion in 2011-12, but has increased since and in 2015-16 it was £4.8 billion. Even that is 40% down than the 2009-10 level.

  • Chart 1
    Chart 1

On these figures it looks like an uphill struggle for those eager to see a quality educational environment in which England’s youth can flourish. And the inevitable known and unknown turbulences that Brexit will create within the construction industry, such as uncertainty over the labour supply, will add further to the task.

That said, for those looking to deliver that quality environment, the architects, engineers, builders and managers, it is both a challenge and an opportunity to shine.

The National Audit Office says there was a 599,000 net increase in school places between 2010 and 2015 and a further 420,000 are needed between 2016 and 2021. One has to assume the low-hanging fruit has been picked, so the route ahead will be tougher.

Standing back, and looking simply at population estimates and projections, you might be forgiven for thinking that a nation as rich and resourceful as the UK should be able to take in its stride a fluctuation of less than 10% over a decade in the school-age population, as the data suggests. 

  • Chart 2
    Chart 2

But when you look at Chart 1, the real scale of the growth in actual numbers of children makes the size of the job ahead loom much larger. The nation hasn’t faced such a sustained growth in children for decades.

Then you have to consider that it’s not just about accommodating a rising overall number. Populations shifts, so there may be some areas seeing school numbers fall, while others have to accommodate far more than the average. Furthermore the rise in primary and secondary school places is far from even, indeed the number of pupils aged up to and including 15 at secondary schools fell between 2007 and 2016 (see Chart 2).

Then there’s the cost. The NAO found that local authorities on average spent £10,900 to create a new primary place and £15,000 for secondary. With upward pressure on costs and the low-hanging fruit already picked, it is a fair assumption that future school places are likely to cost more.

The need for more and better school buildings is, though, not just a function of accommodating extra pupils. It also rests heavily on the quality of the existing stock.

About 60% of the 62 million m2 of England’s 21,200 state-funded schools was built before 1976. A study of England’s education estate in 2014, the Property Data Survey Programme, found that older buildings tend to be in significantly greater need of repair. That bill is estimated at a hefty £6.7 billion.

Interestingly, the NAO report notes that school leaders have perverse incentives to let their buildings fall into an even worse state of repair – so they qualify for replacement.

For those who witnessed the boost in spending on new schools in the early part of the 21st century, this whole state of affairs in which we find ourselves might seem baffling. How much more is needed to bring the nation’s schools up to scratch?

  • Chart 3
    Chart 3

And to provide an insight into the potential scale of the challenge that lies ahead, Chart 3 shows just how large the surge in spending was a decade or so ago. It led to construction work on public schools and colleges – not including universities – hitting £6.5 billion in 2010 alone. At its peak, public sector work on schools and colleges represented almost 9% of all new-work construction, compared with a shade over 1% in 1988.

It is unlikely in these austere times that sufficient funds will be found to reach those dizzying heights again. There will also be resistance to build to what were regarded as the lavish standards seen in the Building Schools for the Future programme. But huge sums will be needed to cope with the surge in pupil numbers even if the buildings achieve the less expensive standards of the current Priority School Building Programme.

The RIBA last year made a solid case for investing in great design in its #TopMarkSchools report. Indeed, if the number of school places is to be delivered and the buildings are to be of a suitable standard, great design appears to be an essential ingredient. 

Smarter thinking linking to smarter design and smarter construction will all be needed, not just to keep costs down and provide buildings that work well and inspire the young to learn, but to compensate for the likely skills shortage that may well be exacerbated by leaving the EU and its unfettered supply of talent.

Indeed if labour shortages become a far greater constraint, as they may, the case to replace schools rather than repair them might well become more appealing, not just for school leaders keen to rid themselves of out-of-date buildings, but because new build tends to be far less labour intensive than repair and maintenance. 



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