The report findings follows on from years of concerns about disrepair in school buildings in England. A 2019 survey found that over a quarter of teachers do not believe their schools are in a state of good repair. This all takes place in the context of cuts of 40% to capital investment in schools buildings by the government between 2010 and 2019. The same budget for school building repair was further cut in 2022.
Poor quality school buildings present a threat to pupil safety, school budgets and can also limit a school’s ability to invest in developing other parts of their school’s offer to pupils.
However, school buildings and learning spaces must go beyond being merely in good repair. They should also be adapted and designed to suit the kind of learning that takes place in them. This is especially the case with classrooms and learning spaces for expressive arts subjects, which typically require unique design to ensure they can facilitate high quality cultural learning.
The recent history of arts spaces in schools
In 2004, the then prime minister launched ‘Building Schools for the Future’ (BSF). The aims of BSF were to rebuild or refurbish every secondary school in England over a 15-20 years period. Local authorities would enter into public-private partnerships, known as Local Education Partnerships (LEPs) with private sector companies to deliver this construction work. Schools in areas of high economic disadvantage were prioritised for refurbishment or rebuilding.
As part of BSF’s mission was a commitment to improve and transform arts spaces in schools. BSF’s guidelines on arts spaces included the following:
- Ample space for the display of student work (both finished and in progress)
- Positioning, windows and lack of obstruction to ensure large amounts of natural light in spaces for the visual arts
- A minimum amount of fixed furniture to support room rearrangement for different activities
Subject specific guidance included:
- Dance - a clear floor area of 10 x 10 metres for a class of 25 students, with a sprung or semi-sprung floor in light-coloured wood and a wall mirror for dancers to check alignment and position. Rooms should also have ICT equipment to allow teachers to film and playback dance rehearsals and performances
- Drama - a work space of 120 to 150 metres squared with adjacent changing rooms, workshop for set design and some studio space with a closed lighting control room. Floors are specified as needing to be a dark colour, with lighting rigs to support a range of washes and a complete blackout where required
- Music - a whole class teaching space with small rooms for group work and instrumental lessons or practice as well as rooms for recording. Recording studios should allow visual and audio contact with main teaching spaces, as well as ample storage for materials and instruments
- Visual arts - the guidance also included an overview of how schools should design exhibition spaces for pupils’ work
The BSF programme was evaluated by the NAO and found to have been delivered in the majority of local authorities in England. While costs exceeded initial estimates, the NAO in 2009 concluded that BSF was proving to be broadly successful in creating higher quality learning environments for young people.
Arts spaces in schools today
With a change of government in 2010, the then Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, decided to scrap the BSF programme. Investment in capital investment for schools fell over the course of the next decade. In 2014, new non-statutory guidance for arts spaces in schools was published. This guidance included:
- Dance - should, where possible be taught in the same spaces as the main hall, dining area or where PE is taught in a school
- Drama - to be taught in a space with “blackout facilities where necessary”
- Music - a main teaching room should have smaller breakout spaces and the total space should have “appropriate acoustic properties”
The 2014 guidance reflects a change - and diminution - in the government’s ambition for teaching spaces for the arts, as well a reduced emphasis at a policy level on learning spaces for arts needing to meet certain specifications to support high quality arts learning.
The future of arts spaces in schools
The government’s response to the NAO report on the state of school buildings emphasised that ensuring school buildings are safe will be a priority for capital investment in the immediate future. This is an appropriate priority. However, the government must also commit to ensuring that all learning spaces for expressive arts in schools meet a set of specifications agreed by the cultural learning sector to ensure high quality arts provision in school.
With pupil numbers set to decrease in the coming decade, researchers forecast that it is very likely that many schools will have to close and relocate to new, shared school settings. As this shift takes place, it is vital the next government ensures that school settings with high quality arts classroom spaces are prioritised for re-siting schools.