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Free Thinkers - RIBA Journal, September 2010
It’s not elitism for parents to support their children’s education, argues architect and parent Mustafa Erdem. But involvement with West London Free School has taught him there are plenty of lessons to be learnt

You will have heard about the new generation of academies, which will be free of local authority control, and about schools to be established as comprehensives with grammar school standards. There’s also the need to raise standards in some local authority-run schools, and of course a new breed of free schools. These have caused some critics to accuse the government of promoting elitist state-funded education that will draw money away from the remaining council-run schools. But is it elitist to promote a diversity of education and to help parents get involved in the education of their children?

Another controversial idea is to convert such buildings as shops and offices for educational use. New schools need buildings, but we can’t write £30m cheques for a new school any more. Seeing the process first hand as a member of the steering committee for the West London Free School has given me a new understanding of how necessary this sort of flexible thinking is.

Over the years we have seen many education initiatives, although few, unfortunately, have fulfilled their promise. There is no doubting the impact of the last five years of the Building Schools for the Future programme to make good decades of underfunding, yet most would agree that this £55bn 15-year project became excessively bureaucratic and failed to involve local communities and businesses. More subversively, it created its own delivery body to move all risks off the national balance sheet.

But its effects were not widely understood. Talking to a candidate at a London borough election hustings about my activities as a local architect with Hans Haenlein Architects specialising in education and community buildings, I discovered a total lack of knowledge of the local authority’s proposed major school building programme and the fact that it favours big national and global business over local small to medium sized businesses.

Boxes and bullying

My seven years’ experience on local authority, voluntary aided and independent school projects has given me an insight into the wide range and quality of existing education provision. On visits to numerous schools I have found beautiful listed and new-build schools, but also dreadful boxes with airless classrooms, narrow corridors, leaking roofs, bullying corners, staircases that lead nowhere, congested and depressing playgrounds… the list goes on.

As a parent I wish my children to be taught in a school which is connected to its community, where they are cherished, stimulated and able to discover the joy of learning. I do not want them to spend the best years of their childhood in unsuitable accommodation. We must design our schools as an extension to our living environment to foster an understanding of human dignity and responsibility to each other.

Well designed spaces stimulate children’s learning ability, contributing to their well-being and capacity with positive and sociable action. They welcome children, teachers, and parents alike and prepare the ground for future generations. Most importantly well-designed schools can help moderate educational failures, whether cultural or socio-economic. We cannot separate children’s education from its context.
We all know that most inner-city schools have less space than their rural or suburban counterparts. This is one of the key issues to be addressed in a country with a rapidly increasing population, most of which is concentrated in poor inner-city areas.

I belong to an extended Turkish family of 31, of whom 29 achieved a higher education qualification. This was the desire of my grandparents. My grandmother was illiterate and my grandfather had to leave school when he was 11. Despite that he went on to become a successful businessman and philanthropist. They built a school for their community in Turkey. I am very proud of this school, which bears my family name and my grandparents’ achievement. They always encouraged us to do our best and also to give something back to the communities in which we live.

In January I joined a group of West London parents wanting to set up and run a school in our area. Interest in our children’s education and future, and passionate discussion about the current system and local issues, carried us forward. I realised the group needed informed advice, which I was able to provide.

Another reason to join the group was that my wife and I, who are both architects, want to give our children, aged four and two, a choice for their education. We are currently jumping through the hoops the LA is imposing on us. We do not know whether they will both get a place in our local primary school or what will happen when they reach secondary school age. We certainly do not want to send them to our local secondary. This uncertainty is very tiring.

Hurdles and help

If you wanted to set up a school under the last government you had two funding choices: direct through central government or through the local authority, which the West London Free School initially tried. The BSF programme in our area was already well under way. The schools to receive funding were identified and we could get no support from our local authority, even though additional places will be required if the student population increases, as predicted.

As we have enough places in good local primary schools, our group focused on setting up a secondary school with sixth form. The first hurdle was to find an existing building or site which would be capable of accommodating four forms of entry plus a sixth form (600 + 240). We were told this was the most economic size of school to plan for. Our search for a site included a disused power station, greenfield sites, parks, and residential and office blocks, but we settled on a wonderful disused listed building with great potential to accommodate all our requirements and have made an offer on it.

But the group is finding it very difficult to understand and accept regulatory constraints such as health and safety, building regulations, DDA and planning, which significantly affect space and building performance standards in new and refurbishment projects.

The other key topic was the number of pupils to plan for and whether the building options we were considering could accommodate these numbers. We looked, for example, at an existing office block. Although the building itself appeared to be big, the total useable floor area could not accommodate our proposed numbers. I advised the group that we either we needed to reduce the pupil numbers or find another building. It is a steep learning curve and on the way we have had numerous heated discussions and developed many numerical models for different student numbers.

As mathematician and philosopher AN Whitehead said: ‘education is learning for life’. Learning starts the day we are born and stops when we die. It is a process, which has specific stages and milestones. Some of these stages will overlap, but it is our biology and the social context in which the learning takes place, which determines our educational progression. In schools it becomes an organised activity.

Standards and standardisation

Schools require above all an organisational framework, which supports learning. Subject teaching, however important, is only one of a variety of services required by a school. Cleaning, repair and maintenance, IT, provision of meals are all regularly outsourced. The question is whether the teaching can also be outsourced as in the Swedish free school model. We have interviewed eleven education providers including three from Sweden, which successfully run schools in both Sweden and the UK – most have been started by former head-teachers. The process is still ongoing.

Since the general election earlier this year our progress has speeded up. The government and local authority officers are now showing a willingness to listen and help us. The 1988 Education Reform Act, which set up a ‘national’ curriculum and league tables, has not halted children’s underachievement but has helped to divide communities. This is why significant change is needed. We have to start celebrating our children’s diversity rather than forcing them into a standardised mould.

Free schools will never be everyone’s choice. They will attract critics. Even within our group we have heated discussions over questions like how to make our admission policy fair for everyone. But I am convinced we will do better for our children than the academy for which I was project architect, where the vision was seriously compromised by the sponsoring hedge-fund manager, whose only interest was financial success. The active involvement of parents in the education of their children can and will make all the difference.

Mustafa Erdem, Hans Haenlein Architects 2010

RIBA Hans Haenlein Architects Chartered A Royal Institute of British Architects Chartered Practice
A member of the First Education Alliance
First Education Alliance