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The worrying state of the school estate

Josephine Smit

In our post-caretaker age, the fabric of schools is deteriorating and spending priorities are shifting. It’s a challenge, but there are positive stories out there

Newham Sixth Form College: School turned college campus, which is now going through gradual redevelopment.
Newham Sixth Form College: School turned college campus, which is now going through gradual redevelopment. Credit: Peter Durant

From Mr Griffiths in Grange Hill to Steven Berkoff’s Mr Klackov in Man Down, the school caretaker has been a stalwart of every school-based television drama and comedy for generations, and the butt of endless pupil pranks. In real life, there was one big advantage of the caretaker: they had a detailed knowledge of their school building that was invaluable to head teachers and to anyone carrying out refurbishment works.

Now facilities managers or outsourced contractors can be found inspecting the corridors of England’s 21,200 schools, and things are very different, says Steven Hale, managing director of consulting engineer, Crofton Design. ‘The old caretaker who knew the school backwards doesn’t exist any more. There’s been a reduction in knowledge of the school as an asset.’ The bigger picture was, however, clearly drawn in the National Audit Office’s (NAO) report on capital funding for new and existing schools, released in February. It gave a less than glowing report of the existing school estate, drawing attention to the Department for Education’s own lack of knowledge of its changing condition, and warning that deteriorating buildings posed ‘a significant risk to long-term value for money’.

The NAO’s report put a high potential price on rectifying that deterioration. It estimated that the cost of bringing all school buildings up to a satisfactory or better condition would be £6.7 billion, and that a further £7.1 billion would be needed to deal with less significant deterioration.

And that’s by no means the only demand on funds, as many schools are having to add classrooms to accommodate rising numbers of pupils. A further 231,000 primary and 189,000 secondary places are needed between 2016 and 2021, with the greatest pressure in London and the South East. 

These demands are equally urgent and weighty, and present some tough choices for clients and their designers in this era of extremely constrained budgets. ‘There is a recurring problem – particularly with urban sites – that they really need remodelling of the whole, but often there is only enough funding to carry out relatively easy projects,’ says Steven Pidwill, director of architect Shepheard Epstein Hunter. ‘So a primary school can end up with a series of single storey buildings, when a better solution would be to rebuild it at three storeys.’ 

Newham Sixth Form College, nicknamed the New Vic, is one place where the architect has been able to remodel. The college has grown out of Plaistow Secondary School to become one of the UK’s largest sixth form establishments with 2,700 students on a campus with a series of extensions. It now has a masterplan for refurbishment and redevelopment, and is a highly complex project, says Pidwill. ‘A project might appear to be only a refurbishment, but schools can be like a city in their own right. You can have a large university project that is simpler.’

Upton Cross Credon School, Newham: A Victorian board school adapted and extended, alongside refurbishment to ancillary buildings, by Shepheard Epstein Hunter.
Upton Cross Credon School, Newham: A Victorian board school adapted and extended, alongside refurbishment to ancillary buildings, by Shepheard Epstein Hunter.

Across the school estate, buildings range from cold and leaky high-ceilinged Victorian board schools to sprawling, single storey, flat roofed post-war examples and beyond, all with extensions, ancillary buildings and individual challenges. Small wonder that Ben Humphries, director with Architype, says, ‘There are some schools that you walk into and despair’. 

Getting from despair to a refurbishment programme takes a lot of initial input, interrogating budgets, drawing up lists of priorities and generating options for the client. These can range from minimal intervention, to some remodelling and replacement, as well as total replacement. Feasibility studies have to be coupled with phasing and relocation plans that minimise temporary accommodation, so that as much of the budget as possible can be channelled into the school. Architype also organises client and stakeholder workshops to establish key project values. Initial client priorities may not necessarily include potential refurbishment benefits like energy saving because, Humphries points out, energy accounts for a relatively small proportion of a school’s running costs. ‘A highly efficient new primary school might have an annual energy bill of £10,000, against £60-70,000 for an older building. That’s a small difference in an overall primary school budget of circa £2 million.’ The architect, therefore, routinely expresses such potential interventions in terms that resonate with the client.  ‘When you explain it to the school as representing the employment of two teaching assistants, the message becomes more powerful.’

What lies beneath

According to the NAO report, the areas most in need of attention in schools fall into two key categories: mechanical and electrical services and external walls, windows and doors. Asbestos also remains a potential risk in many schools built from the 1950s to the 1980s.  

In the absence of the school caretaker, early inspection is often needed to track mechanical and electrical services, says Crofton Design’s Hale. ‘Pre-1990s schools have no drawings or records and quite often changes have been made in an ad hoc way with no logic, so we don’t know how the school works. You have to roll up your sleeves and work out what these systems do. It’s a logistical issue.’

‘Often when you get under the skin of a building you find layers of services running wild,’ says Architype’s Humphries, but there can also be welcome discoveries. The refurbishment of Croydon’s Robert Fitzroy Academy involved renovating, converting and extending a set of buildings from the Edwardian era, 1950s and 1970s; the oldest example was found to have internal chimneys, allowing cross ventilation from the windows. The discovery suited the architect’s eco-minimalist approach. ‘We discovered them during our walk through and so adapted our approach to open some of them up,’ explains Humphries. ‘You often find suspended ceilings concealing high ceilings that can give good stratification of air. In another instance we revealed a fantastic arched window that brought daylight into a hall.’

And 21st century innovation is picking up where the Victorians left off. Architype has promoted Passivhaus principles in existing schools, combining natural ventilation with mechanical ventilation heat recovery at Highgate Junior, where a Victorian villa was integrated with a larger building, and Camden Centre for Learning, which comprises refurbished and extended Victorian buildings. ‘It doesn’t work quite as well as in a new build, but it can improve ventilation, especially where it is more problematic in winter,’ says Humphries. The refurbishment of Highgate Junior’s Victorian villa also incorporates breathable trowelled-on internal insulation, following research by the architect into internal insulation for use where heritage constraints rule out external systems. ‘The product has given significantly better performance while allowing moisture transfer,’ Humphries adds.

In post-war schools, replacement of flat roofs can also allow modern systems with vapour control and insulation levels to be installed. ‘Often in schools of the 1950s to 1970s it’s one of the most important things you can do, alongside more windows and lighting replacement,’ Humphries point out, ‘because they are quite sprawling with high levels of heat loss.’

Robert Fitzroy Academy: Edwardian, 1950s and 1970s buildings called for a combination of renovation, conversion and extension by Architype.
Robert Fitzroy Academy: Edwardian, 1950s and 1970s buildings called for a combination of renovation, conversion and extension by Architype. Credit: Dennis Gilbert

Deceptive appearances

Those post-war schools can also benefit from external insulation and render, a treatment that has transformed the thermal performance and appearance of schools like St Anthony’s Roman Catholic Primary School in East Dulwich. But in some locations school exteriors are receiving attention to drive business.

Since 2011 central and local government have stepped up the delivery of new school places, both through existing and new schools, with the Conservative government supporting the development of free schools. Although school places are still in short supply in many areas, excess in others means competition to win pupils. For these, the school’s attractiveness to prospective pupils and parents, and the funding they will bring, give an imperative to refurbish. ‘Attractiveness from the outside has become a client priority, because of the free schools and academies,’ says Shepheard Epstein Hunter’s Pidwill. ‘Teachers are more aware of it and there is more pressure to be seen as a success, so you’ve got to have a school that looks exciting.’ 

That increases the demands on slim refurbishment budgets, says Humphries. ‘There may sometimes be more fundamental issues that need resolving, but there is a key need to keep the schools viable. We worked on one 1950s school with inadequate roof insulation, where they were faced by a declining roll and wanted a new entrance. They did that, the school has thrived and it has expanded further, but fundamental flaws on energy have still not been addressed.’

When the NAO released its investigation its head, Sir Amyas Morse, said, ‘Having enough school places in safe, high quality buildings in the right areas is a crucial part of the education system’. For many, the realities of school funding are making this a rather distant hope.


£6.7 billion - the cost of returning all school buildings to satisfactory or better condition

£5.5 billion - the cost of repairing building elements exhibiting major defects/not operating as intended

£1.2 billion - the cost of repairing parts of buildings that are life-expired/at ‘serious risk of imminent failure’

420,000 - the number of new school places needed between 2016 and 2021

60% - estimated share of the school estate built before 1976

Source: NAO Capital funding for schools



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