“Big challenges demand bold, robust responses”
In recent years, rapid population growth has seen demand for school places across Bedford soar. In the last four years alone, pupil numbers have risen by 6%, climbing beyond the national average of 4.9%. This has put significant pressure on the borough’s school system – made worse by the large number of deteriorating temporary classrooms littered across its school sites.
Taking a collaborative approach
As Better Learning explores, Bedford’s approach from the outset was to form partnerships that tackled the problem head on. They began close to home. The Mayor of Bedford, Dave Hodgson, formed a group of council officers and members, supported by education and children’s services teams. Together, they recognised the urgency of the problem and the importance of providing quality facilities for the borough’s children, in the face of budget cuts.
With their internal team in place, the council turned to us at Scape Group to help realise its aspirations. Between 2011 and 2015, we worked together to successfully deliver over 3,000 new school places across Bedford, replacing dated facilities and expanding existing schools while making a £35m saving on projected construction costs.
Transforming an entire school system
But the council’s ambitions went further. They’d long wanted to make the transition from a three-tier to two-tier education system – and they needed the right partner to help make it happen. They knew our design team had the modular, offsite construction experience the project called for, so they asked us to take the lead.
Kieran Roberts, architectural technologist at Scape, explains:
“The conversion programme was something Bedford had been trying to do for a long time, but it was only when we brought the modular, standardised approach to the table that it finally became a possibility.
“I was given the task of conducting a borough-wide feasibility study, talking to the head teacher of every school in Bedford to find out what they’d need to make the transition to a two-tier system. We discussed their must-haves and nice-to-haves in terms of additional classrooms, play space, halls etc., then we created a report on each school and applied for planning permission.”
From feasibility to full-scale rollout
The approach worked. Schools were engaged from the outset and a huge volume of planning applications were submitted – including 22 in a single year – all securing permission. The study enabled the council to secure the £36m funding they needed and paved the way for the project to begin in earnest on site.
We used our experience in modular school design to identify cost-effective ways to meet each school’s needs quickly. With so much of the project taking place on active school sites, we also used offsite construction to minimise disruption. Buildings were lifted into place almost entirely finished – regularly entertaining the children who watched their new schools take shape.
Creating schools communities love
It was a process the schools appreciated, as Virginia Gilks, Head Teacher at Bromham C of E Primary School, explains: “We were involved in the design process from the beginning and felt the whole experience was very consultative; our views and ideas were taken on board.
“Construction was remarkably swift and because of the modular nature of the build, it caused very little disruption to the school as a whole - and children and parents were excited to be able to watch the progress of the new building as it took shape before their eyes. And the end result… a block that’s universally admired by children, parents and visitors - a block that feels airy, light and spacious and is a joy to work in.”
Her views are echoed by Paul Spyropoulos, Principal of Wixams Academy:
“We have a beautiful building and a lot of pride in it from all quarters. The students love it, the staff feel very lucky to have it and the parents love it too. The collaboration made the Academy a massive success; the quality is beautiful.”
Paul Spyropoulos, Principal of Wixams Academy
The power of partnership
Such a far-reaching programme of works was only possible because of close, genuine collaboration – not just between Bedford Borough Council and Scape Group, but also with our framework delivery partners, school communities and local SMEs.
“Big challenges demand bold, robust responses,” says Mayor Dave Hodgson. “That’s what our Scape Bedford programme has delivered to meet the challenge of a growing population, new and growing communities and rising numbers of schoolchildren overall…
“We are not complacent, however, and our resolve to keep providing the right infrastructure on time and in budget on behalf of local children, local taxpayers and the community at large is as strong as ever. We believe strongly that our partnership with Scape Group gives us the very best chance of doing so.”
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