Building schools

The decision by the coalition government to halt the Building Schools for the Future programme has catapulted investment in infrastructure into the headlines. The impact on education but also the consequences for the construction industry – and by extension large parts of the FM sector – have been front page news.

The focus has naturally been on the 730-plus projects stopped and the slice of the £55bn cost of the 20-year BSF programme this will save the public purse. There were clearly problems with the programme, an NAO report last year found cost overruns and major delays.

However, it will be education authorities, school governors, headteachers and yes facilities managers, that will have to deal with the consequences of stopping development plans in their tracks.

It is almost certain that, where a major refurbishment or new build was planned, spending on all but essential maintenance will have been scaled back. There is likely to be a substantial backlog of maintenance, repairs and upgrades to schools across the country. A chunk of the savings will have to find its way back into prolonging the life of these buildings for a few more years.

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Do better school buildings produce better students? The question of causal links between facilities and performance is no easier to answer in education than in any other sectors.

But (credit to the Guardian here) there is some research to guide us. A report from KPMG last year found that the rate of improvement in student attainment was 44% higher in PFI schools than conventional ones. Cause and effect?

From 2002 comes a study entitled “Do school facilities affect academic outcomes?” by the wonderfully named National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities, in theUS. Not surprisingly, this concluded that spatial configurations, noise, heat, cold, light and air quality obviously bear on students’ and teachers’ ability to perform.

The dean of faculty at the UK’s Institute of Education is circumspect: “We do know that bad school buildings impact negatively on learning: what we don’t know is just how much good buildings improve the quality of learning.”

So, it’s probably three quarters commonsense to one quarter empirical research that bringing the education estate up to standard over time will improve theUK’s performance.

A session at the BIFM’s recent Members’ Day offered an insight into how this might be achieved. BIFM Award winners Kajima Community, part of the $15bn Kajima construction conglomerate, explained how they worked with teaching staff to expand the community use of schools.

Perhaps the way to get the most out of scarce resources is not to build schools but general purpose facilities which can meet a number of needs – social, health, leisure and education.

It would require different funding models and a less compartmentalised approach. It would also be a great opportunity for active FM.

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