Free-range children: Why I’m convinced by free schools

Free-range children: Why I’m convinced by free schools
Now the dead hand of central government has been prised from our throats, we can build schools in a way that is excitingly new – and strangely old-fashioned
10 September 2010 | By Pascale Scheurer
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A popular school can add £15,000-20,000 to house prices within its catchment area. So whether you have children of school age or not, may I suggest you keep a close eye on the free schools debate over the coming year. These semi-independent, state-funded schools could alter property values in your area. The government’s ambition to create 220,000 school places within a decade also offers opportunities for contractors, consultants and investors.

I’m leading a parent group setting up a free school in Hackney, east London. Based around creative entrepreneurship, it’s the curricular counterpoint to Toby Young’s classics-based west London free school (page 34). The driver was the lack of choice for Carmen and Anaïs, my two-year-old twins. There is an “outstanding” school round the corner with the creative ethos I want but, thanks to the idiocy of the admissions process, my girls are more likely to end up in a sink school further away. So either we take that risk or move: a Hobson’s choice familiar to many parents.

If you were involved in Building Schools for the Future (BSF), either as a contractor or a consultant, you may be wondering how to apply your expertise to deliver free schools. From an inside perspective, the emerging programme is a chance to create intelligent change and innovation. There is a lively online community of parents, educationalists and consultants who are supporting each other’s applications, and applying the knowledge gained during BSF.

Four areas seem critical:

Funding and regulation 
It is not clear how free schools will be funded, how much capital investment will be available and what the draw-down and procurement frameworks will be. Although regulations around planning and Building Bulletin 98 have been relaxed, they remain significant risk factors, not least as a result of legal challenges initiated by, for example, the more militant sections of the teaching unions. Firms may wish to wait until these have shaken out before investing.

Communication with a diverse, localised client group 
As Sir John Egan recently noted, we are returning to a landscape of inexperienced clients commissioning one-off buildings, and governmental enthusiasm for local engagement will require more consultation. Contractors often struggled with this under BSF, and it is now more onerous and less structured. A good solution for clients and contractors is to engage a client design adviser (CDA) to act as interpreter between the education and construction specialists, develop a clear and affordable design brief and lead on stakeholder engagement. The RIBA has just published an updated list of accredited CDAs specialising in education.

Procurement 
Procurement will be localised, fragmented and diverse. This should be good news for small firms that were muscled out of BSF, and it should allow the client more direct control and increase competition. As an architect, I welcome a return to the close relationship of support between client and architect, and more traditional procurement.

Innovation and economies of scale
 An intelligently designed programme could facilitate these two, despite the fragmentation of the client base. A kit-of-parts approach could offer a range of solutions for use in one-off projects, geographical “clusters” or type-based “chains” of free schools. These would be adaptable to the circumstances of each school community and site. We hope the government has learned the lesson from BSF, which set out to deliver 3,500 schools but achieved no economies of scale.
Now the dead hand of BSF has loosened its grip, new solutions can flourish. Follow the progress of Hackney Free School for Creative Entrepreneurship on LinkedIn (search for “Free Schools Resource Group”). Supporting information can be downloaded from the British Council for School Environments’ Centre for School Design – I recommend The New 3Rs: Refresh, Refurbish, Reuse.

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