Are architects the new Muslims? They certainly seem to be giving the mullahs a run for their money in the sensitivity stakes. A couple of weeks ago, I had the temerity to question whether a shiny new building actually improved a school’s academic results, and as a result I have incurred the wrath of the entire profession.
The offending remarks were included in an interview I did with a trade magazine called Building. ‘Architects have managed effectively to perpetuate the myth that academic attainment is crucially dependent on the building that the school is in,’ I said. ‘And there is just no empirical evidence. Academic attainment is almost wholly independent of the type of building a school is in.’
Cue a tsunami of criticism from architects. RIBA president Ruth Reed led the charge, calling my comments ‘hugely damaging’ and ‘absolutely false’. She added: ‘The danger is this myth that good architecture is a luxury. It’s almost a hairshirt idea that in the age of austerity you can’t afford good design. Poor design is a poor investment.’ Next up was the director of education at CABE, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment. ‘The evidence suggests well-designed schools deliver a range of benefits including, but not limited to, academic performance,’ he said. ‘These include teacher recruitment and retention, pupil behaviour and sustainability.’
The first thing to be said in my defence is that I’m not alone in expressing scepticism about the impact of good design on educational outcomes. Last April, Professor Dylan Wiliam, former deputy director of the Institute of Education, attracted a similar level of opprobrium when he questioned the cost-effectiveness of Labour’s £45 billion Building Schools for the Future programme. ‘I know of no studies that show changing the environment has a direct impact on student achievement,’ he said.
The standard response to these criticisms among architects is to point to a glossy brochure produced by CABE entitled ‘The value of good design’. Section B (‘The value of design in educational environments’) cites nine separate studies that supposedly demonstrate a link between good design and educational achievement.
I conducted some cursory research of my own about this evidence, i.e., I emailed Dylan Wiliam, and it turns out to be pretty flimsy. ‘I went through and tracked down every single one of the studies cited in the document and was astonished to find how they had scraped the bottom of the barrel,’ he said. One of them turned out to be a Masters thesis from the University of Georgia in the 1970s. That’s eerily reminiscent of the ‘evidence’ cobbled together by Alastair Campbell to ‘prove’ that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
What little evidence there is suggests that where new buildings do improve attainment it is because children are less likely to truant and teachers less likely to call in sick. The issue, then, is not about whether good design has an impact on educational outcomes, but whether it represents good value for money. Is it worth investing £25 million to refurbish a school building if the only effect it has on the quality of education is to marginally improve attendance? In this light, it’s not poor design that’s a poor investment, but good design.
How could the money be better spent? The simple answer is on teachers. The evidence base here is extremely robust. To cite just one recent study, a group of Harvard economists recently published a paper showing that children blessed with particularly good nursery school teachers can expect to earn, on average, $20 more per week by the time they’re 27. This suggests that if the last government had invested all the money it spent on Building Schools for the Future on early childhood interventions instead, it could have done a lot more to transform the life chances of the least well-off.
Let me be clear. The fact that good design is not a cost-effective way of improving educational outcomes doesn’t mean that architects shouldn’t be involved in the design of school buildings. But they need to make the case for their continued involvement on less utilitarian grounds. If organisations like RIBA and CABE persist in claiming that investing in new school buildings represents good value for money they will be doing their members a disservice. Instead, they should simply point to the increased levels of satisfaction that result from being in a beautiful, well-designed building and leave it at that.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.