The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) has responded to the Education Funding Agency's (EFA) plans for standardising the design and construction of future schools. The RIBA is seriously concerned that the proposed 'flat-pack' approach is inflexible and will deprive students and teachers of quality environments that are proven to support teaching and learning.
RIBA President Angela Brady said:
'Our students, teachers and local communities deserve great schools - environments that are beneficial to the best-quality teaching and learning. In these times of austerity of course we need to cut our cloth on all spending; however, the government's proposals for the design and construction of future schools are far too restrictive with too much focus on short-term savings.
Improvements must be made to the proposals to make sure that the schools we build now will suit the future generations of children that will learn in them, and deliver what the community needs in the longer term.'
The RIBA five key concerns over the government's approach to 'Baseline Design' are:
1. A failure to create functional spaces for excellent teaching
The RIBA is concerned that a 'one size fits all' approach will place a straitjacket on future generations of teaching professionals and quickly render these schools redundant in the light of developments in pedagogy and technology.
2. Not ensuring discipline and student wellbeing
The minimal circulation spaces have the potential for serious congestion, with the consequential impact on behaviour and wellbeing. The designs for secondary schools include narrow corridors and concealed stairs that are difficult to supervise; in many schools this is likely to result in the need for additional staff supervision to maintain good behaviour and avoid bullying. For example, in Guildford's new Christ's College school by DSDHA architects, the corridors were designed to eradicate bad behavior and isolation, which was prevalent in the school's previous 1960s building. The new circulation spaces are compact and easy to monitor and since moving to its new building, Christ's College has been named as one of the country's most improved schools.
3. Ignoring the safeguarding of environmental comfort
The low-energy environmental strategy is welcomed, but the success of the layout is predicated on optimal conditions that may be difficult to achieve in reality. Relatively minor changes in orientation, internal finishes, or structural systems will significantly affect lighting, ventilation, heat gain and acoustics, which will in turn negatively impact on teaching and learning, e.g. well-ventilated and well-lit classrooms are crucial to aiding and extending student concentration.
4. Disregarding statutory requirements for accessibility and inclusion
The RIBA has serious reservations about the ability of the baseline designs to accommodate students and staff with disabilities and in general to meet statutory access requirements.
5. Not delivering long-term sustainability and value
The lack of engagement between sufficiently experienced design teams, educationalists and end users risks these minimum requirements being delivered without consideration of the particular needs of each school community. If the baseline designs are not developed appropriately to meet the teaching and operational needs of every school, they may not be fit for purpose and therefore will not deliver the value-for-money solutions that the government intends.
While the RIBA continues to welcome the government's objectives of achieving increased value for money and identifying ways to rationalise the complex process of design and construction, the institute is calling on the following improvements to be made the 'Baseline Design' proposals:
School designs be subject to independent review by recognised local education practitioners and school leaders to establish their ability to support excellent teaching and meet future community needs.
The development of the baseline designs take full account of the statutory requirements for access and the current guidance on designing for students and staff with physical impairments and other disabilities, including sensory and other 'invisible' impairments.
The environmental strategy be subjected to rigorous testing using a range of structural solutions and finishes.
Designs are tested against a variety of 'real-life' site situations in order to establish their viability before their final release.
EFA clarifies which parts of the baseline design are intended to be indicative or recommended, as opposed to mandatory.
The output specification is developed in sufficient detail in order to safeguard functionality and prevent the erosion of design quality in the tender process.
Clients and schools receive expert advice from qualified and experienced design professionals on the quality and functionality of any contractor's proposals using the baseline design.