Free Schools: The Premises Challenge

Hasan Sidat
Successive governments have moved the goalposts around capital funding for schools. Governing bodies, head teachers and parents frequently struggle to make sense of how updated facilities are to be provided.

School premises make a difference to outcomes for pupils. In their 2009 report, KPMG reported that educational performance in newly rebuilt private finance initiative (PFI) schools improved faster than those rebuilt conventionally. The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) published a BSF school report (PDF, 628 KB) in 2010, shortly after Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education, cancelled the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme. NFER found that in the first new school building to open, pupil attitudes to school and the school environment improved substantially. Further completed BSF projects in July 2010 also showed early signs of improved attendance. As schools seek ways to achieve better facilities with less money, it is interesting to consider whether refurbishments of existing premises can similarly positively influence attendance and attainment.

...it is interesting to consider whether refurbishments of existing premises can similarly positively influence attendance and attainment.

In order to try and meet the growing demand for school places, the current government has demonstrated continuing confidence in the concept of free schools, giving the green light to 102 new establishments to open in 2014, in addition to 174 establishments already open. In total, all currently approved free schools would deliver 130,000 new school places when full. The Department for Education (DfE) expects free schools to open in existing buildings, which can be refurbished or extended in order for them to function as schools. Former hospitals, office buildings, job centres and church halls have been used so far, and prospective schools may choose to begin their search by looking at vacant government-owned property

The Department for Education (DfE) expects free schools to open in existing buildings, which can be refurbished or extended in order for them to function as schools.

In addition to this, measures have also been introduced to help developers of free schools move into buildings more quickly. For example, the Government recently announced that free schools could open in buildings without planning permission for up to one year. Furthermore, councils must prioritise the need for new school developments when considering planning applications. The DfE has announced these measures to help reduce planning red tape. As part of the newly passed Growth and Infrastructure Act, these measures will make it easier for free schools to convert underused buildings. This said, finding a suitable site can sometimes be a long and difficult process, as locating buildings suitable for conversion can be challenging.

...the Government recently announced that free schools could open in buildings without planning permission for up to one year.

The DfE’s guidance on school building and design will continue to apply to free schools; however some requirements have been relaxed, such as the minimum recommended standards for overall area and individual spaces. This should help to make the challenge of finding suitable premises easier.

When looking for premises, a number of factors have to be taken into consideration when determining the 'suitability' of a site. Location is the primary factor as the building needs to be situated in a location accessible to the intended community. Buildings also need to be flexible and adaptable to allow for conversion, and ideally have spaces that can be converted easily to form classrooms, halls, offices, and any other required accommodation. Suitable external spaces need to be available to allow for such activities during the school day. The potential for future expansion is also crucial to allow for greater numbers of pupils to be enrolled in the future.