At a time when some children have spent more time outside than inside school over the past year, Kellie Moore-Mulveen makes the case for investing in our educational infrastructure and highlights three key considerations for developers in the sector.

Once again schools are the focus of front page news as debates rage over whether and when they should reopen.  Many column inches have been devoted to the detrimental impact of lockdown on the career prospects of young people missing out on vital months of their education.  But at the height of the pandemic, an important announcement was made which has the potential to have a positive impact on the education of future generations. In June, the UK government announced a transformative rebuilding programme for schools with £1 billion available for the refurbishment of buildings – the first programme of its kind since 2014. However, was this a knee-jerk reaction to negative headlines or a considered response to a real need?

Surging populations, gentrification and ever-increasing numbers of new homes mean that existing schools are being placed under growing stress. The Scape Group’s most recent School Places Challenge report concludes that 640 new primary and secondary schools will be needed by 2021/2022. At the same time, schools are faced with the challenging task of improving their offer on tight budgets. So, will the government’s latest intervention be enough, or should the private sector also be doing more to develop infrastructure for schools in our local communities?

Take England’s second city as an example. Birmingham City Council will see the largest increase in pupils in the UK and will need to build 111 new primary school classrooms, 319 new secondary school classrooms, or a total of 25 new schools to meet demand from the additional 12,904 school-age children expected.

In a recent Copper blog – Five reasons to invest in the West Midlands – we looked at how the region is attracting significant levels of development, new working spaces and transport infrastructure for the future workforce. But without the foundation provided by a good learning environment, where will the next generation develop the skills required to take up the jobs being created?

The Planning for the Future White Paper acknowledges that new development brings with it an accompanying demand for public services and infrastructure.  Furthermore, it recognises the need for a streamlined system for developer contributions.  And while payments at the point of occupation (of new homes) risk putting the housing cart before the infrastructure horse, measures to enable local authorities to borrow against future revenues from infrastructure levies could offer a way around this problem.

The White Paper communicates a clear desire to speed up the planning system, including the delivery of facilities and infrastructure that communities’ value, such as schools.  So, which considerations should be front of mind for developers investing in our education infrastructure?

1. Contributing to net zero targets by developing greener buildings

There have been significant developments in technology since many schools were built, but schools do not have the finances to upgrade to these greener methods nor the finances to research them.

The Scape Report recommends the use of modular buildings. The benefits of off-site construction include reduced construction times, the capacity to grow with the demand and reduced adverse environmental effects of the construction site itself.

In addition, Copper’s insights on building a greener future for the property sector highlighted that UK buildings account for around 30% of the UK’s carbon emissions and are often overlooked when considering the UK’s target of net zero emissions by 2050.

2. The opportunity to be part of creating a world-class education system

Children and young people deserve the best possible start in life – regardless of their background or where they live. Major new investment will make sure our schools and colleges are fit for the future, with better facilities and brand new buildings so that every child gets a world-class education.

Lessons can be learnt from versatile office spaces, where walls do not have to create fixed spaces, but can move to adapt schools to the needs of the young people using them and not the other way around.

3. Corporate social responsibility – developing careers in the industry

Outreach projects in schools including encouraging females in STEM, providing technology to address the digital divide, and improving digital literacy are now part of most community investment communication strategies.

By investing in schools, investors could address and prepare for future challenges by developing a skilled workforce to support future demands on the infrastructure sector. Investing in schools now is investing in the infrastructure of the future.

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