Challenges and pressures in designing schools for London

Ann Lakshmanan

Ann is a director at Shepheard Epstein Hunter. She has worked on over 15 schools projects across both the state and independent sectors and is particularly interested in delivering schools on site.

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I was asked to make a brief introduction to an NLA Think Tank on How do we deliver more and better quality school for London, outlining what we see as the key pressures and challenges faced by architects in the design and delivery of schools in London which made me think over what issues we come across with our schools projects.

There are many challenges in delivering schools, some of which are general and others specific to London.

Budgets for design and delivery is a general issue and unfortunately there appears to be a ‘race for the bottom’ currently.

Competition for available funding is intense, with clients often requiring quick feasibility studies before applying for funding; timescales for the studies often restrict the amount of consultation and options development that can be explored, leading to perhaps less than optimal design solutions.

Tight construction budgets can foster design solutions with minimum space standards and lower end specification standards, leaving little wriggle room for providing delight within our school buildings. Lower construction budgets can lead to Design and Build as the preferred procurement route as a way for clients to reduce risk and cost; contractor lead design can potentially result in extreme value engineering, with reduced construction quality and dilution of design as a result.

These issues can lead to reduced flexibility for extension or remodelling of new school accommodation and potentially reduced lifespan (due to reduced build quality), which may have implications for the future of our schools estate.

Tight budgets are also leading to reduced fees – our perception is that for both feasibility and design / delivery stages have dropped significantly over the last five ten years, which must have an impact on the quality of design.

On the positive side, guidance on standards that teaching spaces need to achieve is generally pretty robust.

London sites are complicated – necessarily, because they are funny shapes with fierce neighbours, conservation areas and listed buildings, often located by busy roads with poor air quality. Piecemeal past development can leave little opportunity for extensions or new buildings, requiring careful phasing of new development to minimise disruptions to the school. Finding new sites for schools is also a challenge; available sites may be tight or awkward shapes, where achieving external teaching and learning/ play space can be difficult. The government’s approach using simplified, standardised solutions and budgets developed to suit often does not sit happily with these situations.

Imaginative funding and design solutions can include Local Authorities working with partners to provide mixed use developments such as residential above new schools but then one or other project is vulnerable to the residential market / the changing requirement for a new school – and there can be issues with safeguarding and overlooking.

London demographics change rapidly. The Mayor of London’s Annual London Education Report 2017 states that…‘By 2020 it has been identified by the GLA that an additional 60,000 primary places and 105,000 secondary places [will be required]’. When we worked for Lambeth (Kings Avenue School) in 1999/2000 three school sites were compressed into two, with one site being sold off for residential use, because the child-bearing population in London was falling; then five years later the trend was reversed and new school places were required, but the availability of sites was of course then much restricted (with clients unable to afford sites for new schools). Anecdotally, now the trend appears to be going back the other way with the number of children reducing, possibly due to the cost of living in London. Two of the boroughs we are working in are reporting the reversal in demographic trends, so in one case (Westminster) a 2FE primary school is contracting to 1FE, and in the other (Hackney) a secondary school is being shelved. Add Free Schools and Academies into the mix and the ability of Local Education Authorities to plan sensibly for future pupil numbers has become very difficult. Free schools can pop up anywhere, academies move out of LEA control, there is competition for places making it difficult for authorities to predict need. The lag between identifying need and developing proposals can mean that needs change, leading to projects being delayed or cancelled.

We often face complex client and stakeholder arrangements – the client is often the LA, with the school as a key stakeholder. It can be challenging to meet both the LA and school’s expectations, catering for the current senior management team whilst providing enough flex to suit later alternative teaching styles. The often tight timescales for consultation, particularly for the Priority Schools programme, can mean that design solutions are not explored as thoroughly as they might be to ensure that we are making the best use of the available budgets.

Whilst working on schools is undeniably challenging, it is also still a very rewarding sector as we are able to work with stakeholders and end users and, hopefully, deliver projects that help them achieve their aspirations and enable us to contribute significantly to improving the quality of people’s lives.