What follows is a working list of questions & notes on planning-related school issues.
They spring from my confusion about why the planning system is used to govern education in such a way that it defeats the very planning aims it sets out to achieve. I refer mainly to the 2019 National Planning Policy Framework, applying to England only – NPPF 2019, pdf here but touch on the Living with Beauty report at the end.
I am not a planner and what seems to me incoherent about planning and schools may be perfectly explainable. If it is, please do consider getting in touch, either publicly, via comments below, or privately by messaging via the Contact page. Similarly, if there are other things that don’t make sense, I would like to hear from you.
1) Why is planning policy used to do education policy?
The NPPF’s only sustained focus on schools is paragraph 94 (pp.27-8). The emphasis is not on increasing (or improving) school places per se but on increasing choice in school places (an education policy aim): “Local planning authorities should take a proactive, positive and collaborative approach to meeting this requirement [that “a sufficient choice of school places is available”], and to development that will widen choice in education”. But the purpose of the planning system (p.5) is “to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development”. Why is planning being diverted to education policy? (Note, I’m not surprised it happens – I wrote an article about how spatial design and policy does education policy – but it is surprising how this happens so explicitly and directly.)
2) The education policy aims chosen contradict the aims of planning – why?
Planning should contribute to sustainable development, understood broadly in the NPPF as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (p.5). But the focus on widening choice in education contradicts that aim and contributes negatively towards achieving sustainable development – in a number of ways:
a) extending choice is inefficient, contributing to unsustainability
Choice – the ability to select from a range of genuinely accessible options – requires slack in the system (National Audit Office, 2017:18[i]). In this context, it means there must be an (inefficient) overprovision of school places if choice is to be possible. Note that overproviding now is both inefficient at this moment in time and in the future where it reduces the ability to choose. Overprovision compromises future generations’ abilities to meet their needs because it is expenditure that could have created nicer or more energy efficient or bigger or more sports-equipped schools. In fact, anything else that would improve children’s quality of life, rather than extend choice (the asserted benefits of which are anyway ambiguous and context-dependent so relatively risky[ii]). The National Audit Office report acknowledges some of these points (2017:9) noting the “inherent tension” between extending choice and improving local provision in a cost-effective way [note: if you take out the cost effectiveness consideration, the tension remains, see d, below] so it is stranger still that the 2019 NPPF aims to exacerbate these tensions.
b) extending choice increases children’s travel, increases pollution, decreases active travel
Increased distances increase the likelihood children will be driven to school, increasing vehicle emissions and decreasing children’s active transport (cycling or walking) (Easton and Ferrari, 2015; Marshall et al., 2010[iii]). A key point from Easton and Ferrari’s study (based on Sheffield) is that “Currently many educational policies [and, as above, planning policies used for educational policy ends] are working in opposition to sustainable transport goals of local travel and low carbon cities by driving system-wide patterns of ‘excess commuting’ (Horner, 2002) to more distant schools.” (2015:16), a problem of significant scale “when less than half of all English pupils attend their nearest school” (ibid:17).
c) planning should reduce exposure to pollution; these aims increase it
To help reduce the 28,000-36,000 deaths a year in England from human-made air pollution, Public Health England recommends using “spatial planning to reduce sources and exposure to pollution” (p.11) coherent with the stated purpose of planning above. Both of these (i.e. pollution production and pollution exposure) are contradicted by efforts to increase school choice. This problem intensifies when we consider that the school-planning aims of increasing choice reduce the ability to meet health needs of children now and the needs of those same children into the future since “normal lung function growth in children is suppressed by long-term exposure to air pollution” (ibid: 14). Sustainability is attacked once again.
d) planning for school choice and competition is antithetical to community-building
Shouldn’t the planning system guide and facilitate the development not just of land but of communities? To be sure, all schools create communities but ones that operate on the basis of competition and promotion of pupil movement, do so at the expense of local communities. Other things equal, local schools are better able to build in-school community, contribute to the wider community they’re in and develop relations between these. These things are always important. It’s possible they are more important now (mid-2020).
3) Further conflicts between school-planning and educational reality
There are many other confusing aspects of school-planning in England, features that seem to ignore or even worsen what is already happening to English schools.
- The emphasis on extending choice seems odd when basic provision is so problematic with class sizes continuing to increase and when we lack enough places in high demand areas. These shortages can be extremely costly – personally, socially, financially – and often have quite serious knock-on effects. Take the case of the lack of appropriate special needs places. The current shortfall means that the government pays for 20,000 students to attend independent special schools at 2.5 times the cost of state equivalents (Public Accounts Committee, 2020:15, counting at January 2019) so limiting others who need specialist provision and creating further excess commuting that entails financial, environmental and health penalties.
- The latest Marmot Review argues that to improve the health outcomes of young people, we need to put “equity at the heart of national decisions about education policy and funding” (Marmot et al., 2020:57). Why the silence on equity in the planning framework? If planning should be silent on equity, why is it so vocal on choice?
- Why does the government’s renewed interest in a beautiful built environment (criticism noted) not extend to school-building? The Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission’s report, Living with Beauty, (2020) is largely silent on the question of schools – beauty is reserved for “places”, housing and cities in the abstract. This is at least coherent with policy which has allowed recent English school-building to produce some of the ugliest results in a generation or more (spatially mean, higher student densities, aesthetically jarring, standardised, dislocated from contexts, and cheap looking – they go some way to fulfilling the report’s own definition of “ugly” i.e. “buildings that are unadaptable, unhealthy and unsightly, and which violate the context in which they are placed”, p.iv). Ironically, in one of the document’s very few mentions of schools we read them as celebrated, contributing to civic beauty and positioned so as to be walkable (p.27) engendering health benefits that choice, again, tends to defeat. And if beauty “is not merely a visual characteristic, but is revealed in the deep harmony between a place and those who settle there” (p.1) then choice, again, helps to prevent harmony from ever forming (because bonds between schools and local communities are broken) and makes it an issue of equity (because it commodifies “harmony”, allowing those with money to buy harmony through houses close to good schools, aided by platforms such as Rightmove with their School Checker, tagline, “Find the right home near the right school”, and those without money who “pay” by travelling and increased exposure to pollution.)
In fairness, I am confused generally about planning’s silence on schools. Is it an English silence? We’ve seen a very interesting German initiative, Education, Space and Urban Planning: Education as a Component of the City. Is it a recent silence? For the U.S. planning critic and theorist, Lewis Mumford, the school and the home were the two “dominants” that would “constitute the essential nucleus of the new community” (1938:472) with mobile parts that help to make education a dynamic, organic process, ideas that were taken up by the planner and architect Giancarlo De Carlo after the war in Italy.
In England, for a while, educational interest in planning was promoted by academics where it informed the nascent field of Urban Education (e.g. via Gerald Grace’s writing and the MA in Urban Education he started at Kings[iv] or John Raynor and Elizabeth Harris’s courses at the Open University and the accompanying edited collections). But planning-schools-education was also brought closer to the centre of planning too e.g. by the writer and educator Colin Ward at the Town and Country Planning Association – TCPA, see this excellent recent essay by Sol Perez-Martinez. However, since the 1980s, sustained interest in planning and schools (much less education in the broad sense Ward promoted) has been hard to find.
Now, the situation seems more impoverished than ever. The current planning system is geared not towards making schools or school space better (nor more sustainable, bigger, of better quality, more accessible, better protected, better sited, better related to other infrastructure or services, less polluting, more shielded from pollution) – but to extending school choice. In doing so, it seems to neglect its role (while conditioning others to neglect theirs) in shoring up and extending spatial rights on the one hand and the brute availability of space on the other.
[ii] The economist Amartya Sen does a great job in clarifying why the presentation of choice as unambiguously good is misleading: “Facing more alternatives need not invariably be seen as an expansion of a person’s freedom to do the things she would like to do … There is an inescapable need for evaluation in judging … The question really turns on the need to judge what options are important and what are not. The expansion of choices to be made is both an opportunity (the choices can be made by oneself) and a burden (the choices have to be made by oneself).” (original emphases, Inequality Reexamined, 1995:63) The extension of choice need not extend my wellbeing or freedom, therefore. But, more than this. If my concern is simply that my children attend a well-resourced local school, the extension of choice is antagonistic towards this aim in three directions: I now have the burden of making a choice; I have lost the valued option of “leading a peaceful and unbothered life” (ibid); and, as above, providing the real capacity to choose entails a diversion of resources from something else or some other (perhaps more valued) quality immediately and in the future.
[iii]Marshall et al. (2010:1541): “Our results indicate that school-assignment policy can have a large effect on environmental impacts of school commute travel. Relative to the neighborhood-only (i.e., non-school-choice) scenario, emissions of CO2 and of the four urban air pollutants studied here are 4−7 times greater for regional school-choice and 3−8 times greater for current school-choice. Transportation costs and rates of active commute travel (walking/biking) are 8 times greater and 3 times lower, respectively, for the current scenario as for the neighborhood only scenario.” Clearly, cities, school sizes, and school-planning and transport in the U.S. are very different from those in England making such outcomes (size-wise) unlikely over here. But the nature of the outcomes (school choice increases pollution, reduces active travel etc) seems similar and so more work would be useful. However, as Easton and Ferrari (2015:17) point out, a key source of the data needed “was removed from the School Census after 2011, limiting the potential for future work in this area”.
[iv] The MA involved (as course leaders and students) a number of leading educationalists: Geoff Whitty, Stephen Ball and Meg Maguire, see Ball, 2016:19 and for the intellectual inspiration for the MA, Grace, Gerald. ‘Urban Education Theory Revisited: From the Urban Question to End of Millenium’. In International Handbook of Urban Education, edited by William T. Pink and George W. Noblit, 959–78. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer, 2007.