Slim pickings in the free world

Michael Gove’s free schools programme gave architects limited opportunities, but some exciting challenges

Michael Gove has gone but his influence on education lives on. His first definitive policy as education secretary was to create the free schools programme – a violent reaction to the excesses of the Labour government’s Buildings Schools for the Future initiative (BSF), which he axed in 2010. Politically, he was setting out his stall: he needed to do something that was cheap (the funding pot was empty) but full of enthusiastic political rhetoric.

Based on the US Charter School movement, Gove’s free schools allowed anyone to apply to set up a school of their own. It could be any type of school, but you couldn’t run for profit, and you had to be able to demonstrate the area’s basic need for the school. Free schools were not about fancily designed buildings but educational outcomes.

Free schools were based on classic Tory values: fast-paced reform, empowering communities and individuals, taking power away from local authorities, and centralised funding routes. To support this vision, the Department for Schools and Families was replaced by the Department for Education (DFE). The Education Funding Agency (EFA) was also born, set up by the DFE in April 2012 in an attempt to improve efficiency, accountability and transparency in the education sector – and to manage the funding, delivery and procurement of education projects, including free schools. 

Space standards, specifications and price points were all slashed. The space standards bit was interesting: although less area was funded (a 5-10% reduction on Building Bulletins), there was more flexibility on how space was allocated. The loosening of space standards encouraged alternative building typologies to be used – old warehouses, office buildings, hospitals or existing schools. But as an architect the rest of it made for pretty depressing reading: limits of external materials, no atrium spaces, no flexible partitions etc.

Riverside Free School in Barking, London.
Riverside Free School in Barking, London.

Gove’s background in journalism and natural aptitude for soundbites led to the free schools movement making the headlines in 2010 as he made clear his staunch views on the unimportance of design. Gove’s view was that there was no concrete evidence to link educational outcomes to good design, and therefore it was irrelevant. In his view, consultants and in particular architects were fleecing the taxpayer with fees. To quote Gove: ‘We won’t be getting Richard Rogers to design your school. We won’t be getting any award-winning architects to design it, because no one … is here to make architects richer.’ I’m not sure which architects Gove has met, but he obviously wasn’t hanging out with people I know. When it comes to salaries in relation to educational attainment we are the running joke of the professional classes.

Empowering the community

By September 2015, 331 free schools will either be open or in the pipeline. Attainment in those that have been visited by Ofsted has been judged  ‘good’ in 69% of free schools, compared to 64% of all other state schools including academies. So have these politically motivated environments delivered as expected against their own objectives since their inception four years ago? Not quite.

In the beginning all kinds of community groups applied. Community free school groups abounded, led by individuals such as Jon de Maria, who successfully campaigned to convert Bolingbroke hospital in Wands­worth into a new secondary free school.

At the other end of the spectrum: Langford Primary’s courtyard building by Surface to Air completed in 2010 under more generous funding regimes.
At the other end of the spectrum: Langford Primary’s courtyard building by Surface to Air completed in 2010 under more generous funding regimes.

Four years on, however, there are relatively few new free schools in the pipeline. The main success stories involve a limited number of major players; primarily existing outstanding schools or academies wanting to extend their catchment, such as Oasis, Ark and Harris. While these providers may all be truly excellent, they are not the groups originally envisioned to take up the programme. Why did this happen? My hunch is that most parents are too busy trying to earn a living to go about setting up their child’s school. 

And then there were the faith schools (115 of the original applications were in this category). Empowering the community can be a dangerous thing for a politician, as it tends to come back to bite you on the backside. Gove, Birmingham, ‘Trojan horse’ – enough said. 

This is not to say there is nothing interesting coming up. Two of the most significant community-led projects are the Powerlist Post-16 Leadership College focusing on law and finance (the brainchild of Michael Eboda, chief executive of Powerful Media); and the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, co-founded by Sir Paul McCartney and Mark Featherstone-Witty – the man behind the Brit school in Croydon, whose alumni include Amy Winehouse and Adele.

Challenges of lower budgets

The EFA price standard for a free school building is £1,113/m2 – almost half the standard budget of a BSF scheme. The impact of this is that there has been a significant move towards standardised product solutions.

Obviously prefabrication is not new to education buildings – systems such as CLASP were used widely in the 1950s, and the Victorian school design with its centralised halls and u-shaped classroom configurations off from it could also be said to be standardised in some ways. Innovation is very often borne out of adversity and financial challenge, and for larger free school projects the development of standardised manufacturing methods is exciting for the construction industry. 

Key players such as Laing O’Rourke and Portakabin have invested these types of construction methods. There are a range of efficient standardised solutions that are really cost effective as new builds over 2,000m2: volumetric, panellised, concrete, cross-laminated timber, steel – allowing higher build quality at a better price. My own practice, Surface to Air, is involved in modular school design, spearheading Portakabin’s product in the market and looking closely at the car manufacturing industry for inspiration. The primary Riverside free school in Barking was our first free school as Surface to Air – delivered in seven months.

The price standard for a free school building is £1,113/m2 – almost half the standard budget of a Building Schools for the Future scheme

But on smaller free school projects most building works simply involve extension or partial remodelling – making standardisation virtually impossible. This makes it hard to achieve the price points on these projects. When you add the most commonly used procurement route for such projects – uncompetitive call-off contracts – these clients end up paying through the nose, for something they could have procured for themselves more cheaply and most certainly more quickly.

What next?

There have been some relatively interesting developments in standardisation designs with larger schools. I fear, however, that free schools will join the long cycle of politically motivated education design programmes cut just before they hit their stride following a change in the political climate. We need cross-party strategies on these issues, pulling the best minds from every party, not throwing out the baby with the bath water after each change of government. We need to pull together the good elements that work in schools, and keep working at them. As design professionals, we also need to demonstrate that design does affect attainment. We must learn from the hard blows dealt by Gove and the recession if we are to move forward.

The big problem is that the effect of design is very difficult to quantify. It is easy to measure the value of a QS on a project, or a structural engineer or contractor. But the concept, strategy and design vision are difficult to measure. This has been recognised by the Construction Industry Council in its work on design quality indicators, though it has not cracked the problem yet. 

What we need in education are evidence-based design studies similar to those carried out by Roger Ulrich for the health service. He proved that patients recovered faster using fewer drugs when they were in well-lit acoustically controlled private rooms with pleasant views. Without comparable evidence for education buildings, we could end up with a building programme that counts the cost of everything, yet understands the value of nothing. • 

Holly Porter is founding director of Surface to Air Architects