Landscape Review: Schemes for schools

Education, education, education." That was the mantra that saw Tony Blair clinch election victory for the Labour party in 1997.

Focus on children: Farrer Huxley Associates has been involved with various school-based projects. Image: FHA
Focus on children: Farrer Huxley Associates has been involved with various school-based projects. Image: FHA

More than a decade on, with Gordon Brown as leader, the party's educational legacy is still going strong.

In 2004, the Government announced its £45bn Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme, which aims to rebuild or refurbish every secondary school in England by 2020.

Despite the downturn, education is still a priority and has now been expanded to include primary schools through the £7bn Primary Capital Programme.

The hallmarks of the schemes include targets on design standards and opportunities for outdoor learning, which open the door for input from firms in the landscape sector.

CABE enabling adviser Claire McKeown is an expert in school projects and believes a landscape-based approach can "bring about a transformation in education".

Not only can the school grounds provide extra space for teaching and social interaction, but they can help meet the needs of people living in the surrounding area, she says. "It is all about being aware of the value a landscape proposal can add. The landscape should be integrated with the initial design proposal, not added on once the building is complete."

This provides a real creative opportunity for firms through BSF that rarely exists in commercial or housing developments.

BDP associate landscape architect Henry Mead says the schools programme has been a success story for the firm as work dries up in other areas.

Mead explains: "We probably have about 12 schools going on at the moment, either in the bids process, in planning or on site.

"BSF is a growing proportion of our work because of the tail-off from work linked to retail and office projects," he adds. "Education is about the only sector that is growing in the work we do. Although landscape architects cover a lot of areas, we do often get linked with the work architects are doing so we are tied in with their fortunes."

Delivering the scheme

Non-departmental public body Partnerships for Schools (PfS) was set up to deliver the national BSF programme, and has also taken on responsibility for delivery of the Academies scheme - which involves sponsorship through an endowment fund from an investor.

Landscape architects at BDP are now working on proposals for the Wellington Academy, east Wiltshire. The academy is sponsored by Berkshire independent school Wellington College and features gardens and recreational space, as well as a full-size floodlit artificial football pitch. The 9ha site also includes a community bowling green and fully refurbished sports centre.

"We are trying to maximise the use of the grounds for educational purposes," says Mead. "It is quite a sensitive site in terms of ecology and views. There is a lot of emphasis on outdoor learning so we've looked at outdoor classrooms, as well as social areas."

PfS last month announced a £4bn framework to procure the design and build of academies and other educational facilities in local authorities which are not yet engaged with BSF. The new contractors' framework is expected to offer opportunities for up to 24 main providers and their supply chains, which is where landscape design and contracting firms might be able to seize their chance.

Chief executive Tim Byles says: "The new contractors' framework offers a great opportunity for all sectors of the construction industry, particularly at a time when conditions are undeniably tough."

There are already nearly 130 academies being delivered through PfS, with at least 100 more in the pipeline.

Byles says: "The new framework will enable contractors and suppliers from across the country to get involved in a scheme that has a predictable flow of work, supported by direct-grant government funding.

"It has been designed specifically to open up the opportunities to all contractors with a track record of delivering secondary schools or similar projects, enabling smaller regional bidders, as well as larger national firms, to get involved."

In addition, 95 sixth-form college schemes worth an estimated £2.5bn are to be transferred into the BSF programme through the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill to be enacted this year, although work is unlikely to begin until September at the earliest.

Focus on children

Farrer Huxley Associates director Noel Farrer says the Government's stronger focus on children - which includes £235m investment into children's play through its Playbuilder and Play Pathfinder schemes - means landscape architects are well placed to get involved with educational work.

"We have been on a number of different bidding teams for BSF," reveals Farrer. "We see education as one of our key strengths.

"If you are used to creating children's landscapes it is a short jump to start thinking about educational environments."

But Farrer warns the ideal of BSF projects could cause problems where the principles didn't match teachers' views of how education should be delivered. "It is about trying to create environments that are well ahead of the game, but as a designer you are sometimes stuck between competing pressures. Car parking is an obvious one," he adds.

Design and management services firm Mouchel is part of Liverpool 2020 - a partnership set up with the local authority to deliver its BSF schools.

The firm's landscape team has been working on a project at Alsop High School Technology College in Walton, Liverpool, and senior landscape architect Mike Morgan explains: "Education is probably one of the biggest parts of our work now and we are expecting the primary school projects to come through shortly.

"For BSF, landscape is really important. It has risen up the agenda because of government initiatives around making the most of the external environment. That means there is probably more of an opportunity for landscape architects than in the past."

Bristol-based firm 4D Landscape Design was involved in the very first BSF project to complete - Brunel Academy - and director Michele Lavelle says it is important to get involved with the main bidders on a scheme.

"The bidders want to win the contract and so landscape is a very good way of adding some sparkle to a bid," she explains.

"We also planted 28,000 daffodils at Brunel, which make people more seasonally aware. Landscape is recognised as part of the requirements for schools in terms of outdoor spaces for sport."

CABE set up a school design review panel in 2007 to advise local authorities on bidders' proposals for BSF.

The panel's overall design quality assessment is based on 10 criteria that CABE believes are integral to good school design. While some of these relate directly to the school building itself, several are closely linked to work that landscape architects and contractors will become involved in.

These include: making the best use of the site; making assets of the outdoor spaces; achieving identity and context; creating a secure and welcoming place; and deploying convincing environmental strategies.

McKeown adds: "PfS is looking at trying to embrace outdoor learning and school grounds in its standard documentation so there is a real commitment on this.

"Schools are increasing their floor space and can often get more for their money outdoors. There are still lots of opportunities for landscape firms through education."

It is not only the landscape architects who are part of this widening sector. For every school that is rebuilt or refurbished, there is a tranche of planting, landscape construction and maintenance needed.

Creating opportunities

BALI chief executive Sandra Loton-Jones says the opportunities could potentially extend over decades to come, helping fill the gaps for firms affected by the downturn in property and commercial construction.

"The landscape industry can and does play a valuable role in this initiative - from planning to design through construction to maintenance," she says. "The billions of pounds committed to rebuilding and renovating schools will be predominantly spent on buildings, but school grounds can also benefit from this funding and the landscape professional's involvement at the earliest stage can prove beneficial to all parties."

She adds that if schools are to provide excellent facilities for the next 20-30 years, designs for school buildings and grounds need to take account of current and future developments in education and technology and create an environment that encourages pupils and the wider community.

"A number of opportunities are available through BSF for the landscape industry to make a difference to the overall development of schools, while at the same time offering business opportunities to those involved," says Loton-Jones.

Children's secretary Ed Balls has emphasised how "vital" it is that investment is sustained. He says: "This capital investment will not only improve the education of our children but help to support jobs in the construction industry and local businesses."

HOW TO GET INVOLVED

Secondary schools There is a £45bn programme to refurbish or rebuild all secondary schools by 2020. The Department for Children, Schools & Families (DCSF) published an indicative timetable for the next waves of Building Schools for the Future (BSF) in March. A list of the authorities is available at www.teachernet.gov.uk.

Each local authority in BSF sets up a Local Education Partnership (LEP), which will jointly procure design teams, contractors and subcontractors to be involved in their schools. If a firm wishes to work with an LEP it will need to approach the leading private-sector body in the LEP, usually the lead contractor. Current supply chains are listed at www.partnershipsforschools.org.uk.

Primary schools The 15-year, £7bn programme was introduced nationally this month. Funding up to 2011 is confirmed, with 41 local authorities now able to procure work for their projects. This is delivered through DCSF.

Academies Target of 400 academies to be created through private-sector partnerships. Now run by Partnerships for Schools and integrated into the wider BSF programme. Eighteen academies have had outline business plans approved and are now ready for procurement; 11 are already on site. Guidance and a list of upcoming work is available at www.partnershipsforschools.org.uk.

Building Schools Exhibition & Conference 2010

This event, held at ExCel London on 24-25 February 2010, covers all government school-building programmes and will include a Local Authority Village featuring authorities that are just about to procure.


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