Labour's promise to refurbish or rebuild every secondary school is seriously behind schedule and suffering from a lack of expertise, the Government has admitted. Downing Street has intervened to find out what has gone wrong with the multi-billion Building Schools for the Future programme.
The scheme to improve all secondary schools over the next 15 years is being investigated by the Prime Minister's Delivery Unit which wants to get it back on track.
This year the Government is spending pound;5.5bn on school capital. A total of pound;6.5bn has been invested in the first three waves of the scheme, which covers 39 authorities and 370 schools.
By the time it has been extended to all state secondary schools in the country it is expected to cost in the region of pound;45bn.
David Eyre, head of Brighton Hill community college, in Basingstoke, Hampshire, said his pupils had to work in "exceptionally difficult" circumstances because their school building is out of date.
"I'm very cynical now and ask how much money will be left in the pot in the future. In the meantime a whole generation of children will have to work in these awful conditions," he said.
The 17 local authorities in the first wave were supposed to sign off all of their contracts during last financial year. None did. Only three have achieved that target to date, with three more expected before April. That will put the other 11 authorities at least two financial years behind schedule.
When David Miliband, as school standards minister, unveiled the plan in 2003, he promised "inspirational, well designed schools to motivate teaching and learning". But Sally Brooks, head of schools capital at the Department for Education and Skills, told the Commons education committee that there was only a small pool of expertise for authorities to draw on.
"It's our biggest concern," she said. "The capacity, the skills and the expertise."
Ms Brooks criticised local authorities for not understanding the scale of the programme.
Wave four was due to be announced in the next few days, but already looks at risk of delay because of the backlog. Authorities have to prove they have already started their planning before being considered for funding.
John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: "Teachers are very worried at the slippage. The ones most worried are those at the end of the line. For them the improvements are already a very distant prospect."
Ms Brooks conceded that early contracts drawn up under the controversial private finance initiative had not always met the developing needs of schools, but those problems had now been ironed out.
The green credentials of the programme in creating sustainable schools have also suffered: a report showed some new schools using far more energy than planned. One academy in Liverpool was creating five times more carbon than had been expected.
Almost half of primaries will also be rebuilt or refurbished over the next 15 years.
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