Has the school facilities arms race gone too far?

    12 March 2020

    It all began with a rebellion, back in 1851. Boys were pitted against teachers at the new public school Marlborough College, after an escalating tit-for-tat that included a brawl with a local tradesman and his donkey, a punishment curfew and a vengeful desire to show the adults who was boss. This involved ­gunpowder.

    George Cotton, the new head brought in after his humiliated predecessor retired (like the donkey) with his tail between his legs, responded with a system of organised sport as a replacement for organised thuggishness. His solution was adopted by other public schools over the following decades, leading eventually to ever more lavish spending on ever more impressive sporting facilities, and in due course on everything else as well.

    Now, however, many parents worry that this has got out of hand, as they struggle to pay fees that are so much higher than those that burdened their own parents. To be fair, much of this has gone on increasing numbers of teaching and pastoral staff, but some has funded facilities and the staff who go with them. But cynics question whether they are merely expensive accoutrements unnecessary to the educating of children for modern life.

    ‘There is a constant risk of a facilities arms race in which simply having the best, the shiniest, the most impressive new building has almost become an end in itself,’ says Sir Jon Coles, chief executive of United Learning, which runs independent schools such as Guildford High as well as state schools. ‘However, those kinds of factors make precious little difference to the educational success of young people, which depends much more on the quality of teaching, the quality of relationships, the skill and knowledge of the adults they’re working with.’

    ‘There is a constant risk of a facilities arms race in which simply having the best, the shiniest, the most impressive new building has almost become an end in itself’

    For Coles, who speaks with a candour impressive for a former top civil servant (he was director-general for education standards, among other things), an egregious example is an emerging tendency for schools to build not one but two theatres, ‘because the old one isn’t selling any more’. But do schools need even one? ‘A good-quality school hall will serve well for most productions,’ he agrees.

    Many parents take a broadly similar view. Simon Camby, group education director at Cognita, a global schools company with a range of mainly mid-priced institutions in Britain, thinks parents rate facilities a fairly distant third when it comes to choosing a school, behind the quality of education and leadership. He bases this assessment largely on the annual parent surveys that every Cognita school conducts. Threads on Mumsnet, where prospective parents ask current parents about the merits of a particular school, broadly confirm it — at least for the sort of parents who dig below the glossy surface. Nevertheless, Sir Jon of United Learning maintains that families can be swayed by facilities because — unlike abstract concepts such as teaching quality — they can be seen on school open days.

    There is no suggestion that families should forget about facilities altogether. Rather, they should be a little more discerning.

    One area where boarding schools have made tremendous progress, and where parents should demand a higher standard than before, is accommodation. Even for most British families, the old boarding school ideal of a spartan mode of life inspired by the privations of the Lacedaemonian children of antiquity seems an anachronism; for the wealthy foreign families who account for a growing proportion of the pupil base, it would look positively barmy.

    In other cases, spending on facilities can greatly improve the quality of pupils’ experience for very little cost indeed. Cheryl Giovannoni, chief executive of the Girls’ Day School Trust, pours scorn on ‘state-of-the-art buildings’ used to showcase a school. Instead, she cites research at GDST outpost Putney High, which found that improved ventilation and pot plants increased pupils’ productivity, positivity and pleasure in their lessons. Collaborating on the project even increased girls’ research skills.

    Heretics might even wonder why public schools need extracurricular amenities at all. Cognita’s Colchester High School recently won an award for outstanding sport provision from the Independent Schools Association. This is all the more impressive because, as Camby notes, it has no sporting facilities — everything is done outside the school grounds. The battle of Waterloo may have been won on the playing fields of Eton, but any other playing fields might have done the trick just as well.

    However, Graham Hawley, headmaster of Loretto school, just outside Edinburgh, says: ‘If schools have a unique selling point, it’s quite important for them to have the facilities to match.’ For Loretto, which lies next to Muirfield, the oldest club in the world, this USP is golf. Four years ago the school turned a derelict swimming pool into an indoor golf centre, including driving range, putting green, bunker and what Hawley describes as ‘a teaching studio with all the gizmos’. He says that the funding for this came mainly from gifts, though some came from previous annual surpluses, derived essentially from fees.

    There are heads who are unapologetic about their schools’ ambitious building projects that go well beyond catering to a niche, such as Richard Cairns, who as head of Brighton College has presided over a building programme that includes a £55 million sports and science centre described approvingly in a Guardian review as looking like Hogwarts redesigned by George Lucas. ‘It is not just about the prospective parents,’ says Cairns. In a country where science teachers are in short supply, ‘great buildings are magnets for great teachers’.