In Education, Opinion

We are sitting on a school places time bomb, particularly in Greater London and the major urban conurbations; but with imaginative and careful planning we can do something about it.

According to an official forecast from the Department for Education in July, by 2025 an extra 750,000 schools places in England alone will be needed to keep up with a population bulge.

Education is an emotive subject in the UK with debate around free schools, the re-introduction of grammars, the validity of leagues tables and perhaps the most controversial of all – parents failing to get their children into their first choice schools.

All these factors will undoubtedly be a challenge for the current Education Secretary Justine Greening. They will also challenge anybody involved in the building of the much needed schools. Where there are challenges there are also opportunities and as planners we can play a key role in the provision of extra spaces.

The role of effective planning, however, is all too often ignored in the early stages of a school project – a time when we can have the most impact and add the greatest value. Linked to the lack of places is a shortage of available and affordable land and the need to plan developments more imaginatively. For example, we should look at schools being part of mixed use residential development or favour the more challenging sites in terms of planning such as those in the Green Belt.

For the greatest impact, planners need to be involved right from the beginning of any new school build. All too often it is assumed that because a new school is a government project it will sail through any consultation. This is definitely not the case. Although people invariably say they want schools in their area, they don’t necessarily want them too close to them and a single challenge by a well-informed resident can delay the process.

DPP’s work on the Priority School Building Programme Yorkshire for contractor Laing O’Rourke highlights the value that a skilled planner can add. An accelerated timeline from the Education Funding Agency saw planning permission secured for seven secondary schools within six weeks of being appointed, demonstrating the need for in depth knowledge of, and experience in, the education sector.

Elsewhere, DPP co-ordinated the preparation and submission of outline and reserved planning applications for the development of Excelsior Academy in Newcastle upon Tyne. A publicly funded secondary school in the west end of the city, we were involved in public consultation and attendance at both high profile planning committees.

The opening time of a new school is non-negotiable – it has to be at the start of the September term. By bringing in the skills of a specialist planner in the early stages for site identification, risk assessment and advice on public consultation and stakeholder engagement for example, painful delays can be avoided.

Michelle Bath addressed this year’s Education Estates conference on Planning for Schools, examining how it is possible to de-risk the planning process by focusing on recent changes in planning legislation. This thought piece was reported on Building 4 Education‘s website. 

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