Lessons Learnt?


The news that almost 600 schools are currently undergoing urgent structural review[1] is a depressingly familiar story taking me back to my own school days. Almost a quarter of a century ago I was a pupil at an esteemed local comprehensive in suburban Sheffield. Silverdale School, built in 1957 was an ambitious and joyous interpretation of Modernism – vast walls of metal-framed windows, brightly coloured spandrels and sculptural roof forms. Over time the school had expanded massively and despite many pedestrian additions and a chronic lack of investment, the original fifties building still inspired me and played a part in my decision to study architecture.

In the late 90s, my education was, however interrupted. The lack of investment and maintenance at Silverdale came to a head when reinforcing bars spalled to the point that a large section of concrete fell three storeys from an overhanging roof onto the footpath below. Fortunately, the structural failure happened overnight but the school was closed for two days whilst urgent investigations took place. For us teenagers, this came as a flurry of excitement and two days of perceived freedom, but for those responsible for our safety it must have brought untold stress. What followed was widespread agreement from those in power that the situation was untenable and a commitment that such extreme risks could not be allowed to be repeated. In 2009, Silverdale was one of hundreds of schools rebuilt as part of the BSF programme[2], cited as the biggest investment in education building in 50 years at its roll out[3].

The BSF programme was also where I started my professional career working in education architecture. For all the much-publicised criticism of the programme[4] – some I would agree with some I would dispute – it provided chronically needed investment. Part of the remit of BSF was transformation and I am proud of the impact that my small part in the process has made on the lives of now thousands of pupils who have passed through the schools I worked on. A few years ago, I returned to one of the BSF schools I was project architect on and was pleased to see that the commitment the team had made to delivering a robust and durable building had paid off. For those lucky pupils, they continue to enjoy a good quality learning environment that is safe and solid.

The BSF programme was halted with a change of government in 2010 by former education secretary Michael Gove. The shut-down resulted in shelving 715 school upgrades, on the advice of no less than ‘an experienced City banker’[5]. Pulling the plug on school capital spending so abruptly was spectacularly short-sighted and has gone on to entrench the lack of equity in education provision across the country: the lucky ones who got a rebuild and those left behind. It sadly comes as no surprise that a decade of austerity would result in today’s shocking headlines – it doesn’t take a banker to tell you that you need to invest to secure a better future.

We speak often in the profession of lessons learnt and the opportunity to do better next time. Interestingly, when asked in 2016 about scrapping BSF, Gove expressed his regret in the way the process was handled and noted that “the best learn from their errors and learn on the job”[6]. I can only hope that from the horror of crumbling schools and the real fear for pupil safety we can learn from the past and get back to a point of ambition; to properly invest in and value the places of learning; and to deliver the quality schools that all our children deserve.



[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-66030635

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silverdale_School

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Building_Schools_for_the_Future

[4] https://www.nao.org.uk/reports/the-building-schools-for-the-future-programme-renewing-the-secondary-school-estate/

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Building_Schools_for_the_Future

[6] https://www.architectsjournal.co.uk/news/gove-i-regret-scrapping-building-schools-for-the-future

My year 7 form room (A3) at ground floor; sixth form physics lab (B1) at first floor; and music classroom (C1) where I failed to learn the keyboard. Image © Andrew Howe