Building project in need of shoring up

15th December 2006 at 00:00
When Gordon Brown reaffirmed his pledge to spend billions of pounds on improving school buildings last week, it was hailed by one union leader as "the best bit of news since Labour came to power".

However, the Building Schools for the Future programme, which aims to renew or rebuild all secondary schools in the next 15 years, has already fallen a long way behind target. It was first announced in 2003, with the promise of state-of-the-art facilities in environmentally friendly, sustainable schools. But according to Sally Brooks, in charge of schools capital at the Department for Education and Skills, local authorities in the first tranche are struggling to cope with the project.

Bristol city council became the first authority to sign off its project.

But 11 of the 17 first wave schools are not expected to sign off their contracts until 20078 - two years behind schedule.

The DfES said it had learnt from its early mistakes and that waves two and three are catching up. It is expected that wave four, due to be announced this week, will deliver on time, a spokesman added.

Martin Lipson, from 4ps, a not-for-profit consultancy that helps local authorities with projects, said councils had to get used to a big change, from delivering one school at a time to huge numbers at once.

"You get more bangs for your buck with a strategic approach, but it takes longer to get the schools built," he told the Commons education committee.

A DfES report to the education committee said that projects which included "innovative academy proposals" were likely to be approved more quickly. But 4ps consultants wrote that academies were "getting in the way" of planning because of the impact they can have on demand other schools.

Despite the problems, the DfES said there was no question of extending the time frame.

"If we said to any local authority we would like to slow you down, they would not be very happy about it," Ms Brooks said.

The BSF money has not been allocated to authorities that have the biggest school repair bills, but to those in areas of greatest deprivation. That means that authorities such as Hampshire, which have one of the highest repair bills in the country, has missed out on the early rounds funding.

David Eyre, head of Brighton Hill community college, in Basingstoke, said his pupils were having to work in "exceptionally difficult" circumstances because the school building is out of date.

"We have to wait our turn. I'm cynical 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.

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