Westminster Education Forum Keynote Seminar
Building Schools for the Future – flexibility, usability, sustainability

th April 2007

Spreading Best Practice in Commissioning

If you are a Local Authority officer charged with a school rebuilding programme, or a head, a school governor, parent, an interested pupil or a member of the local community where would you expect the process to start?

There are some obvious first steps – a survey of the existing school estate (the Asset Management Plan), certainly an assessment of pupil numbers both now and into the future and a comparison with existing capacity and definitely an examination of the future learning and curriculum needs of the school and the local community. Much of this can be done using existing knowledge and by consulting your base of experts, the staff, teachers and pupils of the schools although you are very likely to need external help and expert facilitation to draw it together in a meaningful way.

But having looked at the size of the challenge you still will not have a way forward and for many Local Authorities there is very little recent experience to go on as to how to use the opportunity presented by an investment programme such as BSF into a school system that really does transform the educational and life opportunities of the area around it.

It used to be easier. Local Authorities had Education and Architects departments full of experienced individuals who had done it before and knew how to proceed. Indeed even a small firm of architects, from whom many schools projects were commissioned, had the knowledge and skill to create impressive results. Through a process of working with the LEA, the school, the governors they would develop designs that ideally satisfied everyone’s needs and aspirations. This process of working through the problems, needs and aspirations of the client and gradually developing designs that both identify requirements and provide solutions I think of as
Briefing by Design and is still how architects work for most private clients. The brief is only identified and developed by putting forward possible solutions and seeing which ones work.

In modern public sector procurement, including Building Schools for the Future, this approach is no longer possible. The Brief must be fully developed before the separate bidding teams are set to work developing their ideas and designs. And by a Brief I do not mean a Schedule of room sizes and servicing requirements. That is the territory of the Output Specification. The Brief is a demanding but less prescriptive document that sets out the Vision of the school , the way it will be required to work and function, issues such as adaptability and flexibility, sustainability and durability and the educational and social outcomes expected. It does not provide solutions but does set out a very clear requirement as to what is to be achieved. The brief needs to be developed and owned by everyone involved in the future of the school and schools although few of them are likely to have done anything like this before. It is not easy to produce and even less easy to see how it can be costed without floor areas or wall sizes to be measured. And unlike the first model we discussed it does not immediately result in something clearly visualisable such as a design for a school for everyone to focus on. Indeed it is likely to ask many more questions that it provides answers.

Initially, under the new procurement systems, the way round this was to provide indicative designs – referred to variously as exemplar designs, reference schemes or as still in the health sector as Public Sector Comparators. A firm of architects would be commissioned to work through and design a potential scheme from which costings and the output specification could be prepared. It would not necessarily be shown to the bidding design teams. Imagine working as a designer on schemes that you knew would never see the light of day, imagine the waste of effort and the demoralising effect.

In response to the need for help with early help in understanding the challenge of the process and the need to develop high quality briefs before anyone starts the design process it has become essential that the right advice is available to the clients, users and others as early as possible.

CABE, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, with funding from the DfES, provides Enablers to BSF projects. 15 days worth of high level advice available free to Local Authorities in current waves. Enablers are there to raise design awareness to ensure quality and to help make the process work well. They are not there to liaise with the schools, to help develop and firm up the brief or be part of the team ensuring that the bidders produce the best – the really good facilities and services that those communities deserve.

For that a Client Design Advisor is required. A slightly new label for a professional who has been around for a long time working for the client and ensuring that they get the best their budget can afford. As a result of new public sector procurement systems, that separate clients from the ultimate design teams, the need for Client Design Advisors has burgeoned.

The CDA has a whole host of tasks, from running consultations and workshops with clients and user groups to careful monitoring of the buildings once delivered to see that they do do what was required and promised, but the key task around which all their work hinges is the preparation of the Brief.

Preparation of a good Brief takes longer and more effort than is immediately obvious. It needs to be started early and then to be kept up to date long into the project. Ideally all Local Authorities should be appointing Client Design Advisors as early as possible and especially before they are allocated a BSF wave. Barking & Dagenham made sure they did so before they were included in Wave 4 and as a result have made sure they were really well prepared to get exceptional results out of the BSF programme. It may cost some money now but it will pay off long into the future.

Thank you.

Simon Foxell
CABE Enabler