Clare Newton and Lena Gan contemplate the overall impact of the recent major national investment in school buildings known as Building the Education Revolution by bringing together the voices of architects, clients and education providers from across Australia.
Building the Education Revolution (BER) was a $16.2 billion initiative announced by the federal government in February 2009. Within two and a half years of the announcement 92 percent of all projects were complete. In a design and construction industry, where projects are generally developed over months and years rather than days and weeks, the speed of delivery of such a major infrastructure investment was unprecedented.
The process has been controversial, with a media outcry in the first half of 2010 claiming BER funds were being misspent. As a result, the BER Implementation Taskforce was established by the federal government to review the process, assess value for money and address complaints. Given that the economic initiative is called Building the Education Revolution, it is curious that the final report did not attempt to assess the new learning environments in terms of educational fit. The risk with assessing “value for money” is that there can be a tendency to focus on what is easiest to measure rather than what is most important. The concept of “value for money” in the provision of school infrastructure is complex and multilayered, and the projects have often benefited from the support of excellent architecture communities and innovation in ways that are often overlooked by post-occupancy evaluations.
Will this be remembered as an “education revolution” or as a missed opportunity and an example of misspent government funding? In researching this article, it became apparent that this question required further exploration.
The BER crammed years of education infrastructure funding into months. Allocation of the $16.2 billion was as follows:
- $14.1B for the Primary Schools for the 21st Century program
- $821.8M for science and language centres
- $1.28B for the National School Pride program for smaller refurbishment and upgrade projects.
Funding was allocated across government and private sectors through twenty-two education authorities, including state government education departments and block grant authorities (BGAs) that administer funding to independent schools. The federal government called for “shovel-ready” projects when the BER was announced. Guidelines required government education authorities and BGAs to use templates unless able to demonstrate an expeditious process without a template.
To further enhance efficiency and early take-up, design templates were used by states, territories and BGAs wherever possible. These templates had to be used by each project unless a school or system had a pre-approved design available, or could demonstrate that the non-use of a template was reasonable, appropriate, and that the building process could still be expedited and achieved within the prescribed time frames.
The development of templates was a time of turmoil and concern within both the architecture and education professions. There were concerns that the approach was “one size fits all,” with limited options to respond to the specific needs and qualities of individual schools. Most state education departments implemented template designs, while Catholic Education and other independent schools were able to avoid using templates. The independent schools sector has an established system of devolved decision making, where decisions are made by the school community or parish with support provided by both independent schools associations and Catholic Education offices around Australia. This decision-making structure allowed quick responses, with many schools able to transfer funding to buildings already being planned or to build on already established relationships with architects.
The Taskforce chair, Brad Orgill, in the interim report of December 2010, reported being impressed by the effective use of program funds by the independent schools sector. He stated that at schools whose “projects were managed by individual schools, school community satisfaction with outcomes [had] been high.” The chief executive of Independent Schools Victoria explained that many independent schools were able to meet funding deadlines because they were already planning new buildings and were therefore able to convert a project in the wings into one funded under the BER. Government schools were likewise able to benefit if they had a plan underway, but this was understandably less common.
How much was the BER about education and how much was it about the economy?
A key difficulty of the BER process was its need to reconcile the two very different objectives of providing immediate stimulus for the economy and the renewing education infrastructure in a long-term sense. The time frames for these objectives are vastly different. The economic stimulus required quick action, so the federal government designed BER guidelines to ensure that this happened. On the other hand, the renewal of education infrastructure is a long-term investment that ideally involves school communities reflecting deeply on the kinds of teaching practices and learning spaces that will be required over the next twenty to fifty years.
An additional variable was the politically expedient decision to allocate funding based on enrolments rather than dividing the funding equally between all communities. Neither the state of existing facilities nor the needs of student cohorts were factored into the allocation equation.
The education context
To complicate matters further, the stimulus package came at a time when many educators and education authorities were rethinking teaching and learning strategies. During the past decade innovative school design has focused on student-centred learning within rich digital learning environments. Many schools are shifting from the “cells and bells” environment of classroom teaching into larger, more fluid spaces with a range of furniture settings. Rather than having one subject-specific teacher in an individual classroom, increasingly students work in a way that brings together learning across disciplines supported by teams of teachers. The most successful schools have prepared a clear educational vision with strong leadership and support for teachers during this time of change. Concurrently, governments and communities have been asking for more sustainable design solutions with a view to improving the health and wellbeing of students and staff, reducing operating costs and being environmentally responsible. Recent education awards for schools reveal that architects are responding well to all these drivers.
The states approached the design of BER facilities in different ways. The acting director of infrastructure in Western Australia said that the department was able to easily adapt to the BER initiative as it was already taking a quasi-template approach to primary school design. The Northern Territory and the ACT did not use templates as the size of their school community meant that a case-by-case approach was feasible. Feedback from NSW indicated that their template designs, managed by a few architecture firms, were unable to incorporate much innovation within the short time frame. Victoria was in a more fortunate position – innovative spaces developed for the Public Private Partnership program were adapted to form hybrid templates able to be configured as classrooms or larger learning areas through the use of sliding doors. South Australia’s templates were more conservative but included enlarged corridor spaces, enabling some collaboration.
The Taskforce defined “value for money” (VFM) in terms of quality, time and cost. In the Taskforce formula, quality contributed 30 percent, time 20 percent and cost 50 percent. Quality or fitness for purpose was measured in terms of whether or not the building met required design standards and complied with agreed scope. Missing from this definition is a whole-of-life costing and a consideration of the more intangible aspects of how spaces support learning.
Architects intrinsically understand design as an enabler – spaces are so much more than just passive products. Projects that are on time, on budget and of adequate quality may not, in themselves, deliver the best value for money. Higher quality, same cost, longer time may be a better outcome over the life of the building, as might lower quality or higher cost if there is better value per dollar spent.
It could be argued that the Taskforce focused too much on construction quality under the guise of assessing design quality. An improved method would have been to separate design quality and construction-detailing quality. Given that the program was called Building the Education Revolution, the review methods used by the Taskforce could have incorporated more nuanced feedback from clients, users and school design experts in order to measure design quality in terms of how the new spaces suit new thinking in education.
Ultimately, the Taskforce findings raised more questions than they answered. Which of the new spaces might best support the kind of learning students will be undertaking in twenty or fifty years? Might the stimulus package still have been economically effective if expanded to a five-year program enabling more competitive construction and giving schools time to ensure designs met their current and future needs? Might government funds have been more fairly distributed if allocation was on the basis of need rather than enrolment? How might whole-of-life benefits be assessed in terms of value for money? Taskforce findings provide useful feedback on the Australian construction and project management industries along with government capacity to manage infrastructure, but whether or not the program was “building the education revolution” was not sufficiently addressed.
Feedback from the media, schools and architects
Feedback from educators, students and broader school communities has contrasted markedly with media reports. In the first half of 2010 the media focus around the BER was on wasted money, disappointed principals and poor designs.
As students started to move into some of the new template designs in Victoria, a multidisciplinary team from the University of Melbourne observed early occupation of eighteen new classroom spaces at three schools, interviewing users and measuring comfort and acoustic qualities. Initially teachers tended to keep the students inside classrooms, but by the second month nearly all were working in new ways, with doors open and students having more choices about how and where they worked. In most spaces there was a quiet buzz of work happening and positive feedback from teachers. One educator commented, “The students just work well in there. They’re relaxed, they’re proud of their building. The surprise is how well the students have adapted to the new environment.”
The research team is optimistic that these new spaces, now incorporated into many primary schools across Victoria, will be a tipping point allowing teachers and students to experience team teaching in more fluid learning environments, particularly if they are supported by professional development. Acoustics, so important for larger learning spaces, were measured by an acoustics engineer and found to be excellent. At the same time we witnessed early hiccups with the building-management systems of two of the three buildings and were concerned to see cost cutting had removed high-level louvres, reducing the effectiveness of ventilation in one of the buildings.
Architects from four states had much to say about the BER. Their experiences varied but they agreed that working directly with schools, having relationships of trust and having a good understanding of sites and school cultures were facilitating factors. They also agreed that the short time frame was a stressful, but not insurmountable, factor. The combination of time frame and the lack of existing processes able to cater to a program of this scale in the government sector were major issues underlying the negative feedback. The devolved approach within the private school systems, with online support, adapted well to the scale, scope and requirements of the BER program.
The many intangible benefits
The BER has had many positive outcomes and many of these are intangible. (It would require an article longer than this
one to do justice to them.) These include:
- facilitation of the transition to new student-centred pedagogies
- positive impact on organizational culture and user behaviour
- focus on how learning spaces may impact teaching and learning outcomes
- exemplars for sustainable design and improved comfort levels contributing to wellbeing, morale and motivation
- exemplars for accommodating changing technologies, ICT and pedagogies
- focus on community use of infrastructure
- professional development models for the effective use of new spaces
- provision of a springboard for improvements in the ongoing delivery of school infrastructure
- increased construction industry capability for the future
- recognition through architectural awards
- instilment in students of the idea that education investment shows that society values learning.
The BER has created a highly dynamic situation, bringing together a confluence of variables and a range of professions – infrastructure management, project management, construction, architecture, education, education administration, finance, risk management and quality control. These have interacted with local communities to provide jobs and create new learning spaces and learning opportunities. Media criticism has focused on the process, capital cost issues and construction defects rather than the end product. Despite the negative focus of the media, schools in general have appreciated the injection of funds into education. No single program in recent history has had such an extensive impact on the design, construction and education professions.
The template approach served a purpose for the BER program and has provided primary schools in some states with options beyond the traditional classroom. However, the BER Implementation Taskforce found “empowered school principals and managing architects” were a “success factor” and believed Australia should be careful not to follow blindly in the footsteps of the UK by implementing template approaches as standard.
Although it is too soon to conclusively evaluate whole-of-life costs and benefits, indications are that the BER has produced one of the largest step changes in school environments and has had an impact on every community across Australia. However, buildings alone will not be sufficient to enable an education revolution. Teachers will need support to optimize their use of these new spaces. We anticipate that the BER will be remembered as an important transformative moment in Australian education, more so in some states and systems than in others.