School projects will provide a lifeline for many m&e contractors throughout the recession, but how do you secure yourself a piece of the action?

Where can you place a bid when times are hard? It’s no great secret that the public sector offers a great deal more security than most. But where’s the most money to be found and how can you improve your chances of sealing the deal?

It doesn’t require a PhD in economics to realise that education is still the key.

College projects have hit the headlines recently for all the wrong reasons due to problems surrounding the Learning and Skills Council’s £2.3bn colleges renewal scheme. But word on the playground is that school’s most certainly not out for the summer. In fact, school’s not out until at least 2020.

Building Schools for the Future

The government’s main schools initiative is the £45bn Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme, which is scheduled to run until 2020. BSF accounts for £9bn of the £22bn being spent on education construction in this spending review period, which runs up until April 2011.

Anyone considering getting their teeth into the increasing number of BSF schemes should familiarise themselves with the two main procurement methods: Local Education Partnerships (LEPs) and frameworks.

LEPs are the most common vehicle used to deliver BSF projects. A new LEP process has recently been introduced that offers a smoother, speedier path to financial closure and focuses significantly more on partnering.

The National Framework for Academies is set to be another chief source of new work in the schools sector. Currently, more than half new academy build projects are being procured through this route, with the remainder being delivered through LEPs.

The government has pledged to increase the number of academies, as have the Tories if they come to power. At the moment more than 50 new academies are being procured through the national framework.

This will be reprocured this year, which will provide a major source of new business. More than £4bn of new school projects are to be delivered over a four-year period.

A proposed national framework will provide the basis for even greater numbers of schools to be procured in the future.

Partnerships for Schools (PfS) aims to have this new framework in place by the end of this year. Following recent case law on public procurement, documents will need to include a clear and detailed explanation of the methods used to evaluate candidates.

Primary Capital Programme

SMEs are also set to gain from the government’s focus on education, with primary school contracts coming in thick and fast. The Primary Capital Programme, which started this April, has been allocated £7bn.

The government has pledged to rebuild or renew 8000 of England’s 18 000 primary schools by 2023. It plans to spend £1.75bn by April 2011.

Some 148 local authorities have applied to participate in the programme. So far, 41 of these have had funding confirmed for 2009/10 and 2010/11, and another 92 have funding approved for 2009/10, but need to make revisions to ensure funding for 2010/11.

The programme will involve some rebuilding and more refurbishment. About 1500 projects are in the pipeline, including more than 350 new or replacement schools.

Major refurbishments or new facilities are planned for about 850 primary schools. Small projects involving less than half a school’s floor area are due at a further 350.

Construction of a new 400-pupil primary school tends to cost in the region of £4-7m.

So far, the Primary Capital Programme has been organised by the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF). It is understood it will eventually be managed by PfS, although the time frame for such a move is currently unclear.

Procurement will be much more flexible than with BSF, which offers a choice between framework contractors and Local Education Partnerships. These latter involve a joint venture between the local authority, PfS’s investment vehicle and a contractor.

Government sources have indicated there will be four methods of procurement for primary schools: local authority frameworks, one-off procurement, Private Finance Initiatives (PFIs) and LEPs. The latter two processes are likely to be in the minority.

Owing to the small scale of most projects, it is expected that projects will be procured through existing local or regional frameworks.