A Victorian-era community primary has been rebuilt as a modern replacement primary academy in the West Midlands of England and the DfE puts out a press release to celebrate its opening.
As a promotional puff for a new school, some of the language used initially strikes me as rather odd. The building is modern, boasting all sorts of mod cons and has bright new classes and modern features. Modern? As in recently constructed or some other sense that remains unexplained? Bright new classes (it must have windows, at least) but what are these unspecified modern features, I wonder? The mod cons turn out to be an automatic mechanical ventilation system and school bell beeper system, which certainly must be a thrill for the academy’s young pupils.
It’s almost as if the writer of the press release has forgotten what they are celebrating as this new academy opens. But then, in the final paragraph, the intention behind the press release is revealed:
Thanks to the PSBP, school buildings are being rebuilt faster and cheaper than those built under the previous school building initiative – Building Schools for the Future (BSF).
Even here, once we have understood that the point of this document is to demonstrate that the current government are building new schools in a very different way from their predecessors, the language remains quite curious. Faster? Yes, probably. But cheaper? The word cheap may have connotations of good value for money but also, as referenced by the OED* as involving little trouble and hence of little worth; worthless; paltry and accounted of small value, costing little labour, trouble, effort etc. of a lack of care or of materials. When did we, as consumers of the state school system, start asking for cheaper schools? And what does cheaper even mean in the context of a school building? Architect Helen Taylor, who specialises in school design says in a forthcoming interview with A&E:
The thing I worry about is that the schools we’re building now are not going to give that long-term flexibility and durability that the schools we were building ten years ago did, just because the budgets are so tight and there’s no flexibility in them.
Schools are undoubtedly being constructed faster and more cheaply. This can be achieved by cutting corners with design expertise; by jamming pupils into smaller classrooms and getting rid of break-out spaces and resource rooms; by having smaller playgrounds; by using cheaper materials and finishes and by cutting the budget for consultation with the wider-school community. But even then, are these new school buildings actually more cost-effective in the long-term? If they become unfit for purpose after a decade or two, how cheap will they actually turn out to be? A lack of investment may prove faster, but is it even going to be cheaper in the long-run?
*OED (1980) Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary