Michael Gove, Britain’s Education Secretary, wants school building designers to KISS – keep it simple, stupid. To that end, his department released a long list of rules that any new school construction must follow including prohibitions against “faceted curves,” roof terraces, glazed walls, and transparent or translucent roofs.
The regulations are a countermeasure against what the government sees as the excessive cost of school construction under the Labour government. Over the next several years more than 260 school buildings all over the country are scheduled for renovation and, rather than wasting funds on unique designs, Gove wants architects to work from templates to create “affordable, minimal and purely functional” buildings. Gove contends that bringing down the design costs and building sizes in this way could save the government up to 30% in capital expenses.
Not surprisingly, many architects reacted negatively to these stringent rules. Architects like Norman Foster and Zaha Hadid have won prestigious awards for their innovative school design—albeit criticized by some for spending too much on them. Architects bidding to construct these various schools called into question why they weren’t given a set budget and asked for proposals based on monetary limitations. But it seems the Education Secretary had already made up his mind about anything “extravagant” in architecture as early as last year, when he was quoted at a conference saying, “We won’t be getting any award-winning architects to design it, because no one in this room is here to make architects richer.”
There is little argument that Gove’s plan to keep building costs in line is worth pursuing, especially at a time when Britain is facing a recession-induced budget crunch. Still, some worry that his emphasis on keeping school building utilitarian could have negative consequences for student achievement. Yasha Wallin, discussing Gove’s plan for Good.is, points out that study after study has shown that the learning environment could serve as both as an aid to the learning process and a hurdle. In addition, the 15% reduction in building size has some instructors worried about cramped classrooms and overcrowded common areas like the lunchroom.
Pushing more kids into smaller places has understandably given rise to concerns about discipline. Too many people in one place means that teachers could be less effective in detecting and controlling instances of bullying or other misbehavior. Do these potential problems offset the £6 million per school in savings that Gove anticipates his new plans would bring about? That is the question that schools — and the government — will have to answer in coming years.