Getting the Best Results from Education Funding Agency Baseline Designs

Paul Eaton
The drive to build UK schools efficiently continues.

Many local authorities report a significant shortfall in the 'basic needs' budget provided by the Department for Education (DfE) for new school places. Primary places especially are under pressure, with many schools adding extra classes to keep pace with a fast-rising birth rate. Alongside the reduction in capital programme, the previous government instigated a more standardised design approach as recommended by the James Review. In 2012, the Education Funding Agency (EFA) published 14 baseline designs, intending that new primary and secondary schools would be built more efficiently, sustainably and more affordably too.

Primary places especially are under pressure, with many schools adding extra classes to keep pace with a fast-rising birth rate.

The guides illustrate how the reduced space standards could be configured, leaving it up to individual design teams and contractors to develop their own detail. Sustainability is an important factor. The major driver is to provide naturally ventilated, energy-efficient teaching spaces which perform well acoustically, are healthy and have good natural daylight. The baselines provide a starting point for achieving the best outcomes for schools (air quality, comfort, ventilation), but they will need adapting for any site.

Although the EFA aims to streamline procurement processes, cutting costs and time, critics including Royal Institute Of British Architects (RIBA) have highlighted concerns about the quality of future school buildings. Certainly the budgets are challenging, but new ways of working are beginning to emerge. While local authorities and schools are working hard to maximise existing building space in the short term, many are forging strategic partnerships to build resilience in the growing demand for places. Some are working with neighbouring local authorities to use their collective purchasing power.

In our experience, identifying the best procurement route is absolutely key to delivering within the current funding envelope, especially given the lively contracting market.

In our experience, identifying the best procurement route is absolutely key to delivering within the current funding envelope, especially given the lively contracting market. We have found that contractors procured on a single stage competitive basis have provided the greatest opportunity to achieve this, whereas those procured using two-stage negotiated tenders have proved more challenging. The key is to have the flexibility to tailor the procurement route to suit the project and our proactive commercial management helps our clients achieve this.

We were appointed through our SCAPE National Asset Management, Surveying and Design Services Framework as the lead consultant, to provide project and cost management services as well as multidisciplinary design services for KCC.

The programme comprised five new build primary schools, 1 Form of Entry (1FE) expansion to six others as well as new build and expansions of five special educational needs (SEN) schools. Our earlier experience as lead advisor to the EFA in the development of the baseline designs and the development of their post-occupancy evaluation (POE) system enabled us to mobilise KCC’s programme quickly. KCC’s environmental design standardisation strategy was led by our sustainability team, again bringing the benefits of experience gained through advising the EFA.

Project timescales inevitably bring challenges. As school buildings typically need to be delivered by the start of the new academic year, there’s little room for flexibility in the schedule. Local authority procurement processes can be lengthy, and timescales for design, preparation and evaluation of tender documents may be squeezed as a result. Our SCAPE framework enabled KCC to engage us and immediately mobilise a fully integrated programme management and design team, allowing more time for a considered design and procurement stage.

As EFA baseline design usage continues to mature, we expect to see the benefits of lessons learned across the sector. 

Part of our role on any education project is to manage stakeholders’ expectations, ensuring these are realistic. Local authorities, parents and head teachers all want the best possible building, and we facilitate decision making processes that shape aspirations into achievable realities.

As EFA baseline design usage continues to mature, we expect to see the benefits of lessons learned across the sector. KCC’s programme, for example, included POE within the Soft Landings framework. This was piloted on a new build primary school and an SEN school, enabling essential feedback to be captured and used for ongoing improvement.

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