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Schools: Building Schools for the Future

Volume 687: debated on Monday 18 December 2006

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What are the ecological principles behind the Building Schools for the Future programme.

My Lords, the Government want all schools, including those in Building Schools for the Future, to respect their environment and to promote ecological principles. We mandate an environmental assessment for all major school projects, which promotes sustainable design and seeks not only to minimise damage to sites during construction but also to improve and to create habitats.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his informative Answer. Are the Government prepared to revisit the plans for Building Schools for the Future in the light of the urgent recommendations of the review by Sir Nicolas Stern and of the need for the Government to be in the lead in creating carbon-neutral buildings?

My Lords, we understand the importance of the issues raised in the Stern report, and my department is researching the feasibility and cost of setting higher standards of the kind suggested by the right reverend Prelate. I should stress that building regulations have already raised energy-efficiency standards by 40 per cent during the past five years and there are planning requirements for renewable energy in many areas. We see this as building on existing best practice, including, I should stress, that established by the Academy of St Francis of Assisi in Liverpool, which was pioneered by the right reverend Prelate and has been dubbed Britain's greenest school. Many others are looking to it for inspiration.

My Lords, what steps are being taken to ensure that local authorities have the expertise to manage the Building Schools for the Future programme? Will the Government make a commitment to bringing all schools up to the highest standards of energy efficiency to limit their environmental footprint?

My Lords, the Government have established an organisation called Partnerships for Schools, which works closely with local authorities in developing their plans under Building Schools for the Future. It can bring great expertise to bear and is helping local authorities, especially smaller ones, which may not have the expertise to develop their plans as effectively as they would like.

On sustainable design, a requirement is set by my department that, as a condition of funding for all new build and refurbishments costing more than £500,000 for primary schools and £2 million for secondary schools, those schools must achieve a standard of very good or excellent in the Building Research Establishment’s environmental assessment method for schools, called the BREEAM schools standard. That is helping schools and local authorities to raise the quality and standards of design in that area.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, in building energy-efficient schools, local authorities are not just helping to save the planet but providing a potent tool for teaching children about the environment and the importance of energy conservation and climate change? When people live in an energy-efficient building, they learn a great deal more than they would if they just read about it.

My Lords, I could not agree more with what the noble Baroness says. This is a process of education, not merely setting high standards in public design and construction. The Academy of St Francis of Assisi in Liverpool and other schools which take their environmental duties seriously place great emphasis on the study of environmental sciences at GCSE and on integrating environmental studies into the curriculum of the whole school, not simply its design.

My Lords, the Building Schools for the Future programme includes six new schools in Burnley and two in Pendle. That is generally welcomed in the area, but is the Minister aware that, at the same time, the budget for transport of pupils to schools set by Lancashire County Council is under severe pressure and is being cut year on year? Is it not ridiculous that children at those new schools will have to be taken there by their parents on the school run? It is not very ecologically satisfactory when school transport is under threat and bus services are being cut.

My Lords, I am not accountable to the House for decisions taken by the county council about the allocation of its own education budget. The resources available for education from central Government to the county council have been rising substantially in real terms, year on year. It is up to county councils, which are democratically accountable to their electors, what decisions they take about allocating resources to school transport as against other priorities within their revenue budgets. I stress that their revenue budget has been rising substantially, so that is an issue for them. I stress that no cuts are being forced on them by central Government.

The noble Lord is quite right: the capital for school buildings has risen dramatically in recent years. In 1997, the entire capital budget for schools was £693 million. This year, it is £6.4 billion and, by 2010, it will be £8 billion. There is no area of our public infrastructure on which this Government have a prouder record than our investment in school buildings.

My Lords, are the ecological principles the Minister seeks to apply in state schools being similarly applied in public schools?

My Lords, when my noble friend refers to “public” schools, I assume he means private schools, in keeping with that wonderful nomenclature we have in this country for describing our schools system. I hope that they are following the very good example set by our state schools.

My Lords, can the Minister assure us that the academies that have been completed have been built to the same ecological principles as are now being applied under the Building Schools for the Future programme?

My Lords, certainly ongoing and future schools will be, but we have raised standards of design over the past few years, so some of the earlier ones will not conform in all respects, like other schools built at the same time.