The political context: from Welfare State to Private Finance Initiative

Following the 1902 and 1903 Balfour Acts, and the later Butler (Education) Act of 1944, local borough and county councils took responsibility for the statutory provision of formal education and the subsequent organization, funding and construction of the great majority of the state’s school buildings.

As the public agency responsible for the maintenance of essential social infrastructure (including schools), and working with the construction industry to build thousands of new schools across England and Wales, these new Local Education Authorities acted on behalf of Head Teachers as architectural clients for new capital works. Paradoxically, the vast majority of new school buildings (opened between 1950 and 1970) were also designed by the local authority’s own architect’s.

This duality has given way to the current dichotomy growing within local education authorities wrestling with the financial, legal, contractual and ethical conditions of central governments’ Private Finance Initiative (PFI). With New Labour’s proposed spending and release of public funds via the PFI totalling £8 billion during 2003-2006, the question of whether it is possible for an organization designed to deliver a public service to reorientate itself into a more product – focused commercial operation in order to provide public facilities, is currently being explored in some contemporary PFI schools projects like that at Castle Green School, Sunderland.39 At the very least, it is fair to say that the corporate culture of the protection of commercial interests within the PFI is at odds with the current culture of participation in the delivery of public services.

Contrary to the PFI’s tendency to work with a minimal allowance of time for design and a more standardized design template; and the inherent contractual pressures to ‘design and build’ fast, young people’s participation in schools design projects also challenges LEAs to redefine the client in terms of a collective. On new participatory, collaborative design projects (discussed in more detail below), the ‘client group’ has been redefined to represent the whole school community: children, parents, head teachers, support staff, local community groups and teaching staff alike.

The Department for Education and Skills’ (DfES) own School Buildings & Design Unit’s 2002 guidelines sets the tone for this new relationship between the LEA and school communities: ‘It is very important that right from the beginning of a school building project there is proper consultation with the staff and pupils of the school

and the wider community_____ This approach will

help to encourage greater use of the building, develop trust between all parties and add to the feeling of community and ownership.’40

Further to this, the DfES’s own ‘Departmental Investment Strategy, 2003-06’ published in December 2002 points out – in reference to the commissioned Pricewaterhouse Coopers’ report ‘Building Performance’ (2001) – that ‘external evaluation is revealing the quantitative linkages between investment in school buildings and increasing pupil performance’.41

Whether or not it is possible to prove in quantative terms that a better-designed school helps pupils ‘perform’ better in academic tests, some schoolteachers have been quick to recognize the cross-curricular potential in design projects relating to proposed on-site building works. Education professionals and designers alike appreciate the value in encouraging children and young people to develop their own design ideas, as a way of incorporating into the architects’ main design brief their insights into, and understanding of, the school organization. Initiatives like School Works (see Part Four below), have been especially effective in this aspect of participatory school building renovation projects. In the last few years, as School Works demonstrates, significant strides have been made in finding new ways to link children’s perceptions of architectural space to new school design projects.