The British Council For School Environments announced this week it was to close with immediate effect. The reason give was lack of funding for it to continue its mission of working with the education, design and construction industries to create excellence in learning environments.
Over the years I attended many BCSE events. These were mostly one day conferences bringing together architects, designers, representative from construction companies and of course education experts to have discussions which normally would not take place. These discussions would not normally have taken place as there were (are) very few forums where all of these people could get together, and as the BCSE was a charity, the people taking part were less interested in direct commercial activity, but rather learning genuinely new things from people they would’t normally get to meet. You went to a BCSE event not to win a contract, but to do some serious learning from people who things about learning environments which you did not. And for this, the events were very very useful.
The years of BSF (Building Schools for the Future) were the heyday of the BCSE, with large amounts of money flowing into school design and construction which ensured the charity received the support it needed and of course as schools were built then where new designs and thinking were being used.
When Michael Gove closed the BSF programme at a single pen stroke (and without due legal diligence), he didn’t kill the BCSE, but he certainly loaded the gun. With the final tranche of BSF projects ended or near ended, and with none in the pipeline, the cash dried up.
The explanations from Gove for the cancellation of BSF are well known. He argued that the schools being built were far too expensive, and the procurement mechanisms overly bureaucratic and wasteful. And of course the biggest reason for cancelling BSF was the mantra of the coalition, repeated ad nauseum that ‘we have to bring the deficit down’. Gove’s replacement for BSF is the Priority School Building Programme, and he has been keen to stamp his authority on this with, for instance, frequent sniping at consultants and architects who he believed became rich under the BSF years of plenty, and a ban on the use of curves in school buildings.
I attended the BCSE annual conference in 2011, held at the West London Free School. A fitting venue given Toby Young’s status as the poster boy for Michael Gove’s free school policy. Although billed to appear, Young did not materialise. However, the Conservative chairman of the Education Select Committee (Graham Stuart) did turn up and used his speech to confidently announce that the quality of a school building had no impact on learning. This was a bold statement and there were challenges from the floor, but Stuart had the look of a man who had made up his mind and was not going to countenance even for a single moment that he was wrong. Nor was any evidence, even anecdotal, going to persuade him that a well designed school environment could have a positive influence on learning. In short he had the look of a politician. And a politician cruising the policy freeway on a full tank of his own bluster and arrogance. It’s easy to dismiss Stuart as a buffoon; in fact it’s an excellent idea to do just that; but his point of view expressed at that conference is one which is now enshrined in policy as we move from the inspirational spaces of the BSF schools to the flatpack blandness of the Tory’s ‘Portakabin’ approach to school environments.
So 2 years on, the BCSE is finished, and we talk of school buildings now as ‘a kit of parts’, as a flatpack assembly, as modularised, as standardised, as costed down to the last rivet. Creativity, individuality, flair, risk-taking have been drained out of the system and replaced with the permanent drab grey background of the years of austerity. Corridors and canteens are smaller, classrooms will all be the same size and shape possibly leading to standardised seating in rows facing the front and there is little provision for flexible learning spaces. Cutting down the cash available for building schools seems to reinforce a particular pedagogical approach to education, with the teacher at the front imparting facts to a passive audience of students. This will gladden the heart of Michael Gove, representing as it does the perfect intersection of Coalition penny pinching and Gradgrindian pedagogy.
The biggest problem with the Conservative approach to school environments is that the research shows that excellence in school design does have a positive impact on learning; for instance this study shows clearly that a good school building can have a positive influence on learning and grades. Once again the politicians have totally ignored the work of researchers and gone instead with their gut instinct and the herd mentality of their morally bankrupt party political beliefs.
The paradox is that now the BCSE is dead, it is now more than ever that we need an organisation like it.