Lofty ambitions for new builds are left dangling

20th February 2009 at 00:00
The agency running the schools renewal programme says it can deliver 300 buildings a year by 2011. But with a National Audit Office report challenging this bullish view, hopes that Building Schools for the Future can act as a catalyst for economic regeneration in recession-hit Britain may be forlorn. Richard Vaughan reports

In the week that schools secretary Ed Balls is reported to have said the current financial turmoil will be the worst in more than 100 years, schools minister Jim Knight was describing the country's financial predicament as "education's moment".

Mr Knight was speaking via video link at the UK's largest schools construction exhibition, the Building Schools Exhibition and Conference, held in Manchester last week, and he claimed that education will play an integral role as the UK struggles through a deepening recession.

"Education will be vital to the future of our communities," Mr Knight said. "It will provide an opportunity to stimulate local economies and to invest in local infrastructure."

Central to this investment is the Government's huge schools renewal programme, Building Schools for the Future. The project is regarded by businesses up and down the country as one of their last hopes of survival as the grip of recession tightens.

But there is a growing concern that education could be suffering from stage fright as it takes its moment in the spotlight.

Last week, a National Audit Office (NAO) report said the BSF programme "remains a real challenge" if it is to deliver 250 schools a year by 2020.

The same report made the headlines last week when it revealed that the cost of the school rebuilding initiative had soared by between Pounds 7 billion and Pounds 10 billion, taking the total up to anywhere between Pounds 52 billion and Pounds 55 billion. The main reason for the huge increase is the expansion of the the scope of the project to include academies, special educational needs facilities and voluntary aided schools.

The perhaps unforeseen jump in price comes from the inflation in building costs, which at Pounds 3.4bn is no small change, but which has already been factored into the programme.

The main concern, which remains unanswered, is whether the banks will be able to lend the private cash needed to fund the builds in the first place.

At the end of last year, Partnerships for Schools (PfS) - the agency in charge of delivering the building programme - secured Pounds 300 million in funding from the European Investment Bank to kick-start three schemes, but many banks are still unwilling to lend. The TES has learnt that PfS has re-entered talks with the European Union to gain more funding.

Despite this, PfS chief executive Tim Byles - who was praised in the NAO report for turning the building programme's fortunes around - is bullish about the prospects, claiming the low-risk nature of private finance initiatives will tempt banks back into lending.

"We have closed three deals already this year, 12 banks are already committed to providing senior debt, (and) in 18 months' time 300 schools will be completed. And, importantly, 95 per cent of funding has been allocated for deals this year, and 70 per cent for next year," Mr Byles said.

"The audit office report makes it unequivocally clear that BSF is now being well run and that costs are being kept under control," he said. "It is a shame that much of the media commentary has chosen to look at BSF through the rear-view mirror, focusing on the delays of the early days that have been well documented over the past few years. Those early days were undoubtedly challenging, but for nearly two years now BSF has met or exceeded all of its delivery targets."

PfS is confident that it will not only be able to meet the NAO forecast that 250 schools will need to be built every year from 2011, but will exceed it by delivering 300 a year.

However, not all are as convinced by Mr Byles' confidence. Conservative MP Edward Leigh, who chairs the Commons Public Accounts Committee, believes the forecasts are farfetched.

"Four years into the programme, only 42 schools have opened, yet the Department (for Children, Schools and Families) is confidently predicting that it will manage to open 250 schools per year after 2011. Given the rate of progress so far, this seems fanciful," Mr Leigh said.

And he is not alone. If the Government hopes the building programme will act as a catalyst - not just for the physical, but also the social and economic, regeneration of a community - it still needs to convince many key players.

In particular, there are concerns that if the programme steps up a gear and as many as 300 new schools are delivered each year, an opportunity will be missed when it comes to ICT. Chris Poole has led Microsoft's involvement with the programme for the past four years, but he says despite claims from the Government that every school will be brought up to the same standard in ICT, he has yet to see a real "transformation".

"The programme is little more than a building and ICT project," Mr Poole said. "I don't think the Government has thought about how it is going to manage true transformational change."

Likewise, there are increasing doubts over how well designed the schools will be once the building programme speeds up, not to mention hitting the targets set by the Government to reduce all new schools' carbon emissions in the battle against climate change.

Sunand Prasad, president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, told The TES that although there are checks and measures in place to uphold school design in the shape of "minimum design standards", there could be a tendency to aim for these minimum standards to push profit margins.

"We should be looking to exceed these minimum standards," Mr Prasad said. "We should be getting the processes right at the beginning to ensure schools are designed to the very highest standards, not relying on quality assurance tests such as these."

A further challenge is sustainability. The Government has called for all new schools built from 2016 onwards to be zero carbon. Architect Robin Nicholson, chair of the Department for Children, Schools and Families' zero carbon taskforce, said it would be "very difficult" to hit this target.

Mr Nicholson said: "There is still a debate over the definition of zero carbon, which is expected to be established later this year.

"There is no doubt we are wasting a huge amount of energy. We are moving in the right direction, but we need to do more testing so we can learn what works and what doesn't."

With all of these factors to consider, it comes as little surprise that the audit office report found that school leaders and senior school staff often find it difficult to cope with the added strain that comes with managing a school building project on such an enormous scale.

Many school leaders said they felt they were left to manage alone, and now the National Governors' Association (NGA) is calling for the building programme to be simplified.

Association director Richard Thompson said: "The NGA is looking to stop the tangling up of positive issues, such as tangling the academy programme with BSF. We believe the BSF project should be simplified, while academies are disentangled from it."

This is an unlikely prospect under the current administration. The Government has reiterated its commitment to the building programme, and PfS says it is "ahead of schedule" to improve the secondary school estate despite the recent bad press.

But if Mr Balls is right and this is the worst financial downturn for more than 100 years and banks remain unwilling to lend in 2009, it will be interesting to see how much of a future this school rebuilding programme has.

Key points

- 95 per cent of funding has been allocated for BSF deals in 200809; 70 per cent for 200910.

- PfS says 300 schools per year are expected to be delivered from 2011.

- Microsoft is concerned over ICT provision, dubbing BSF "just a building project".

- The Royal Institute of British Architects has warned that school design cannot settle for minimum standards.

- Government's 2016 zero-carbon target is "very difficult", says taskforce chair.

- National Governors' Association calls for academy and BSF programmes to be separated.

BSF: the story so far

- The programme aims to rebuild or refurbish each of the 3,500 secondary schools in England. It is expected to last until 2020, but it is believed that a more realistic target date for every school to be "brought into the 21st century" is 2023.

- Each local authority is asked to secure a private sector partner and form a local education partnership in which all schools in that local authority area will be rebuilt and refurbished.

- About 41 per cent of BSF is accounted for by private finance initiatives, where a private sector partner is awarded a contract to design and build a school, and then operate and maintain it - usually for 25 years or more. This is effectively leasing the school back to the local authority.

- The remaining 59 per cent of funding will come from conventional capital grants from the Government; these will be used where a school is being refurbished rather than rebuilt. A design and build contract is generally used.

- The DCSF has allocated Pounds 7.5 billion up to March 2011, but it still relies on private sector cash to fund many of the new buildings.

- The BSF was not included in the Government's acceleration of education cash in the pre-budget review and it is understood the programme needs Pounds 1.2 billion this year, Pounds 600 million of which is required in the first six months. It is unclear where money for the BSF programme will come from after March 2011.

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