Local education partnerships can build houses, theatres and health centres – not just schools, says Robin Porter, BSF programme director at Luton Borough Council.

Thirteen new or refurbished secondary schools in four years is a big undertaking for any local education partnership. But, in Luton, we are not stopping at the school gates. We have an extended £500m programme of community improvements that is positively breathtaking. It includes a 50 metre swimming pool and world-class diving training centre, new libraries, a community theatre and an integrated children’s development centre providing specialised care for youngsters with disabilities. We are also building 450 badly needed affordable homes.

This is a project delivering wholesale positive change. Luton’s economy is benefitting too: whenever possible, the partnership is using local contractors and buying its materials locally. Many new jobs could result, along with nearly 300 construction apprenticeships and around 750 work experience placements.

The story started four years ago, when a town hall business case outlined how an investment of £280m could transform not only local schools but surrounding communities too. Crucially, a carefully extended programme could offer the economies of scale vital to getting the utmost from available resources.

The Luton Learning and Community Partnership is made up of the council and our construction partner, QED Wates. The partnership is underpinned by a shared vision and clear set of values, helped by retaining the same staff on both public and private sector sides. There are currently around eight Wates staff seconded to the partnership, working with 25 staff from the council. All are co-located in the same office for maximum cohesion and the maximum chance to ‘over-deliver’ at every opportunity.

Results so far have been outstanding: the schools element went from procurement to financial close in just 18 months, one of the fastest in Building Schools for the Future history. This allowed construction to start during the summer holidays, with minimal disruption to school pupils and teachers. Feedback so far, particularly from headteachers, has been highly positive. Throughout, consultation with residents and end-users has been vital. All this has contributed to the trust and goodwill enjoyed by the partnership.

The benefits of Luton’s extended, integrated approach is vividly demonstrated in one of our projects, Lea Manor school. Lea Manor is located in an area of high deprivation that faces significant challenges. This in turn affects pupils. Better life chances cannot come from first-class schools alone; improvements to the surrounding environment are also vital. By increasing Lea Manor’s ability to work at the heart of the community, we saw a clear opportunity to help deliver both.

Work started in June and will finish in less than two years’ time, when a greatly enhanced school will offer a new library, excellent facilities for adult education, and a health centre specialising in the needs of disabled children. It will also boast flexible, well-equipped office space for support agency staff working with the school and its pupils.

In addition, there will be an attractive and highly usable ‘youth space’ and youth club, along with a health centre for teenagers. Extensive refurbishment of the adjacent leisure centre and sports hall is also part of the project package. Plus, a much-loved and well-used school theatre will be transformed into a showpiece befitting the school’s status as a specialist in the teaching of performing arts.

Seating over 250 people, it will be the largest public theatre in Luton, enjoying all the facilities found in regional commercial establishments. By day, it will be used for performing arts lessons, and by night it will host school and community productions. Adjacent to Lea Manor, with its own frontage, it will be a potent statement of school and community in close harmony.

All our projects are designed to excite and inspire: a catalyst for a heightened awareness and appreciation of what schools can offer everyone as ‘community hubs’. By turning them into attractive destination venues for local residents, we will help demystify ‘school’ and encourage greater interest and support from parents and local people in general. In addition, school children will enjoy and benefit from a positive interaction with community life.

As well as contributing to the town’s rising educational attainment, our extended local education partnership model will contribute to Luton’s ongoing regeneration for many years to come. Along with revitalised schools, we are delivering some excellent facilities that people want, together with additional, much-needed, social housing. In short, this programme demonstrates the value that an integrated, well-organised partnership approach can deliver.