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Stephen Beechey, group strategy director and MD government affairs at The Wates Group

Fit for the future

Stephen Beechey looks at the issues which are likely to shape the way schools are designed over the next 30 years

Posted by Dave Higgitt | March 25, 2015 | Facilities & buildings

In February, the government released details of the successful schools included in the second phase of the priority school building programme, with its imaginative title PSBP 2. This phase, valued at £2 billion, concentrates on individual school buildings (or blocks) in the worst condition and allocated funds to 277 schools. Although £2 billion sounds a lot of money, given that there are just over 3,000 state-funded secondary schools in England and over 16,000 primary schools, it is clear that over the next 30 years, a considerable amount of public investment will be required to build new schools and refurbish existing ones to meet the needs of a rising population and modernise the existing school estate. With significant public investment in new schools over the forthcoming decades, it is an appropriate question to ask: what should we be looking for in our schools of the future to maximise their potential in supporting improvements in teaching and learning? In essence, what changes can we anticipate and therefore ought to be factored into any future school design brief?

A number of commentators in the national press have made suggestions about how teaching within the school of the future could be improved. One point is that the general uniformity of secondary schools should be avoided, if the education system is to have a variety of routes to success. Another issue is the false separation of either pursuing academic or vocational subjects in post-14 education. If these are to be seen as equal in merit, then both types of learning environments ought to be on the same site, side by side. The artificial divide which holds people back in the current system can and ought to be broken and would contribute to a well-rounded education.

On the nature of classrooms, these ought to be able to stand the test of time, so will need to be flexible and – perhaps a small point – they should have a lot of natural light and good ventilation because there is increasing evidence to suggest that this motivates people.

There is also considerable pressure for school infrastructure to be equal in quality to nations across the world which are increasingly seeing better results in standardised tests than in the UK. Partly in response, it's likely that schools will be open longer, as finishing at 3pm will no longer be sufficient to ensure school results do not decline any further against international competition.

Although these points are not without their merit, it is perhaps worthwhile to consider if there are any observable trends in the design of new schools in recent years that might herald the future direction of school design. There appear to be three issues that stand out that are moving the design brief for schools forward and which are worth looking at in a little more detail. These are, firstly, the relationship between a school and its community. Then there is the relationship between a school with local businesses and finally the role of technology within the school.

It is quite clear that some schools have developed very strong relationships with their communities and make available a range of facilities and services from sport facilities to health care and even faith centres. This seems like a trend that is likely to continue, with aspects of the school estate becoming more available to community organisations. Obviously this would require careful design and planning to segregate areas, particularly during the daytime, but there is significant potential to create real 'community schools' and make them a key hub for the locality. The trend for schools to become the location of shared local facilities may well have a significant impact on a school of the future.

Another direction we ought to be moving in that will impact on design is for schools to develop closer relationships with local businesses. One of the roles of a school – and this is often neglected – is to prepare young people for the workplace. Many businesses report that first-time employees at entry-level grades often lack development of ‘employability skills’, such as teamwork, self-management or even a positive attitude towards work. These are not so much academic skills but ought to be a part of a good school's preparation for the world of work. The demand, therefore, is that there needs to be a space within a school to allow employers to spend time with students: here these skills could be taught and workplace employment attitudes could be developed.

Technology is also becoming a significant driver in the way a school might be designed differently in the future. The use of ‘big data’ will be able to offer many new opportunities for students in terms of the way they are taught and evaluated, but also in the way the school itself is managed. Students will be able to use their personal devices to complete assignments and have them evaluated at a national or even international level – and from this it will be possible to devise tailored learning plans to optimise future performance. The school administrator of the future will benefit from the embedded devices throughout a school, from monitoring temperature to optimising power usage. It will be possible for school infrastructure to be switched off outside of school hours and windows will be able to be closed automatically to anticipate adverse weather conditions. We will be able to measure the efficiency of the school, with all the associated benefits that will bring.

Investment in school infrastructure has long been premised on meeting the needs of a rising population and also on replacing and refurbishing ageing buildings. However, there is another reason that is emerging and that is there is now strong evidence that a refurbished school environment leads to better performance in the classroom and significantly so in some cases. The recent University of Salford research is interesting in that it indicated as much as 73 percent of the variation in pupil performance at the classroom level could be explained by the quality of the building environment measured in the study. New investment in schools therefore appears to lift pupil performance in and of itself, and should not be overlooked in a drive to raise pupil attainment.

A school fit for the future may not seem to be too different on the outside to one of, say, 30 years ago, but on the inside it is likely to look quite different. This may include new community facilities, business playing a more significant role in the culture of the school than in the past and, perhaps most importantly, the use of new technologies. With such huge sums of money to be invested in our school system over the next few years, there has never been a greater need for a debate on what a school of the future will look like.

Stephen Beechey is group strategy director and managing director government affairs at The Wates Group

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