Compelling Imperatives

The Department for Education (DfE) condition data collection programme of over 22,000 schools across the UK is now complete. Subject to final checks and balances the big picture of our current school estate is not good. Mike Green, COO and Director General of the Operations Group for the DfE, speaking at the Education Estates conference in Manchester last week, affirmed that; “something has to be done”, as it’s clear that the condition of our learning spaces across the country are generally in poor condition and getting worse. “The estate could be better” and should be better. What are the ‘compelling imperatives’ that are driving the programme of improvement? Mike Green set out his agenda to the conference, as a challenge to the industry and to his own department.

Mark Farmer’s October 2016 report on the construction sector concluded; ‘modernise or die’. The DfE’s response is the, soon to be announced, modern methods of construction (MMC) framework. Having a variety of references; modular, component, MMC or off-site, the drive is to increase the number of modular school projects being delivered. It will take time to increase the momentum which has to be driven by a definite visible pipeline of projects; properly planned, programmed and de-risked. In the meantime, delivery will have to retain majority traditional build. Efficient, continuous production based on a standard sector wide componentised system is the target, the MMC framework the delivery mechanism. The challenge to the sector; how efficient are your systems and processes, and is there capacity? The challenge to the department; can you commit to a 20-year programme of works, with a clear visible pipeline, smooth procurement processes to enable the industry to commit to investment to ‘modernise and thrive’?

Daily news headlines around the climate emergency bring sustainability front and centre. The ‘compelling imperative’ around green issues in the design delivery and operation of school estate continues to be on the agenda. The target of net zero emissions by 2050 should focus minds, and with the call from the platform for innovation and contribution, the DfE are looking for creative thinking. Is it realistic to conceive a system that recovers energy generated from the students to eliminate heating in school buildings? Is the technology and investment in place to deliver ‘off grid’ carbon positive school buildings? The challenge to the sector is not just signing up to pledges and good intentions, but action in supporting the DfE in their endeavours. The challenge to the department; will the funding model expand enough to capture innovation? Are you prepared to change cultural thinking to make a significant difference in the design, modernisation, and operation of the school estate?

The new 1,100 place secondary school near the Grenfell tower was opened in 13 weeks. A testament to efficient planning, efficient systems and efficient delivery. Streamlining the process and driving value for money must be part of the approach to continuous improvement. The MMC framework is seen as a step in the right direction; however, will the procurement process be similarly scrutinised to ensure greater efficiencies? With eyes on the November budget the department are calling for a longer funding pledge from the Chancellor, moving from the 3-year to 10-year commitment allowing the opportunity of a more certain pipeline of projects, and greater visibility for the construction industry. The industry will have to match the commitment; the ability to invest in systems and factories to support the 20-year programme.

Have we learnt the lessons from the Oxgangs Primary School wall collapse in January 2016? Mike Green’s final compelling imperative is the call “to do things properly”. The impression is a rallying cry for greater quality in the final built product, but the imperative must permeate throughout every aspect of process, procurement, design, delivery and operation. Whilst the mistakes at Oxgangs must not be ignored, and the implication that standards have just slipped a little, there must be a greater emphasis on the proper approach from every partner involved.

We have been designing and delivering learning environments at Watson Batty Architects for the last 25 years. Our teams have been involved with Private Finance Initiative, Building Schools for the Future, Priority Schools Building Programme, Education Funding Agency school programmes and have successfully adapted our culture and approach to successfully deliver over 25,000 school places as the Government continues to ring the changes. We are prepared to embrace the challenges on the agenda committing to; MMC contractors in the design and delivery of off-site schools, to Architects Declare; the professions response to the climate emergency, and investing in resource training and technology to ensure that we are efficient and lean, ready to face the challenge of significantly improving the school estate.

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