Building solutions to London’s schools crisis

Victorian London SchoolLondon is on the brink of one of the biggest new waves of school building in generations – 70,000 new places are needed in the next four years alone. But with land and money scarce, only a partnership with developers and new thinking on design can solve this crisis.

Births in London are up more than a quarter in a decade, in places by more than 50%. The frozen housing market means fewer families are leaving too, resulting in the biggest surge in demand for schools in living memory. And births have continued to rise so this may just be the start, temporary measures, conversions and extensions to existing schools will not be enough.

To put it into perspective, 70,000 school places would cost £1.7bn and take up more land than the regeneration areas of Kings Cross, Paddington, White City and Earl’s Court combined. A new approach is needed.

To find space for new schools in a crowded city, councils must work more closely with landowners. Developers understand how good schools can add value as well as benefit the local community. But the investment won’t stack-up if new housing schemes have to pay for everything the community wants – health centres, transport, and affordable housing. We need to make choices.

It also means keeping an open mind on design. The Government aims to cut the costs of school building by standardised design and procurement – the James Review suggests 30% could be saved this way. But in London where land can cost tens of millions of pounds a hectare, the real savings are in making more efficient use of land. The James Review has less to say on this.

Fortunately, new high-density school designs have emerged in recent years. High quality schools on very small sites, creating space with multi-storey construction, and playgrounds on the roof. Such innovation is still resisted by some councils, but London’s schools crisis can’t be solved without it.

The irony is that in many ways the future is actually a return to the very high density schools pioneered 140 years ago by Edward Robson at the School Board for London. Schools which were described by Sherlock Holmes as “Lighthouses! Beacons of the Future!”, and which still serve so many children today.

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Update 18/11/11

You can get more detail on this issue, including some examples of new high density schools, and schools built in partnership with developers, in my presentation given to the NLA schools conference yesterday.

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