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Overcoming the school places shortfall with mixed-use sites

More than three-quarters of councils did not receive enough government money to create the extra school places needed in their area, according to research by the Local Government Association.

Instead, councils borrowed money, used cash earmarked for other building programmes or created places with money intended to be spent on renovating old school buildings. Had this not happened, many children would have been left without education.

While local authorities’ ability to bridge the funding gap is diminishing due to increasing pressures on their finances, it does not seem likely that the government will increase central funding significantly, as its focus is on reducing the budget deficit.

Councils are therefore challenged with devising a flexible approach, which blends new free schools with cost-effective new build and refurbishment solutions that will still provide a high-quality learning experience for young people.

“Schools in mixed-use sites are commonplace in cities around the world where education standards are now higher than those in the UK. We need to learn from this”

The pressure to create more school places is greatest in urban areas, with immigration, demographic changes, increased birth rates and economic impacts compounding the problem.

In these areas, we must look to mixed-use sites as the solution. By this I mean schools which sit below houses and offices, or above shops in multi-storey developments.

This may seem out of the ordinary. But schools in mixed-use sites are commonplace in cities around the world where education standards are now higher than those in the UK.

We need to learn from this.The UK’s current approach to building two-storey schools on ‘oasis’ (standalone) sites in inner cities is no longer viable – councils must accept this by revising their traditional approach to creating new school places. 

In other cities around the world, more intensive use is made of green spaces and we should look to replicate this so that children still have recreational space.

“In other cities around the world, more intensive use is made of green spaces and we should look to replicate this so that children still have recreational space.”

To ensure the mixed-use approach is a success, councils must work closely with property developers that are seeking to invest in their local area.

They will also have to accept that branded Multi-Academy Trusts will operate some of their schools. Positively for property investors, the right MAT brands will present acceptable tenant covenants that they will accept as sharers of space with commercial tenants.

As part of this, we may also start to see new school sites provided as leased space, rather than public sector-owned space as is traditional.

Councils shouldn’t shy away from this option – free schools are operating successfully in leased refurbished buildings and there’s no reason why local authority schools can’t either.

“Councils must adapt their approach to building education facilities now if we are to continue to meet the demand for school places”

With the primary school population set to continue rising over the next five years, and the pressure soon to be realised at secondary level too, councils must adapt their approach to building education facilities now if we are to continue to meet the demand for school places.

Marcus Fagent is head of the education sector at EC Harris.

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