After five years, the Building Schools for the Future programme is finally delivering some results. Over the next four pages Eleanor Cochrane looks at its progress, how it is working in practice, and catches up with Tim Byles, chief executive of delivery body Partnerships for Schools

Building Schools for the Future, the government’s £45bn programme to rebuild or upgrade all of England’s 3,500 secondary schools by 2019, didn’t exactly get off to the best start. Even Tim Byles, chief executive of Partnerships for Schools, the government agency set up to deliver BSF, admits that the programme has struggled with delivery and design issues. And the media hasn’t been too kind either – barely a week goes by without BSF featuring in a none-too-complimentary news story in the construction press.

But as a new school year gets under way, a further 22 BSF schools have been opened, taking the total to 35. This is still far behind the original goal of 100 by the end of 2007, but with 80 of 150 local authorities now involved in the programme, the momentum seems to be gathering. And this could prove to be good news for contractors as commercial work starts to dry up and the word ‘recession’ starts to appear in more economic forecasts.

BSF projects tend to be procured through the creation of a local education partnership, or LEP, which is similar to the special purpose vehicle (SPV) used in PFI projects. Once established, the LEP takes on the construction or refurbishment of a number of schools in the local authority area. The problem so far has been that the complex nature of the procurement process, combined with its relative immaturity, has put off all but the larger, more confident firms.

‘We have a tendency to go into environments that are quite challenging, so being a pathfinder was where we could add value to the process,’ says Darren Gill, director of SPV management and LEPs at Bouygues, which went into BSF at right at the beginning, dubbed wave 1. ‘It’s no different to where PFI was 10 years ago.’

There are signs that the situation may change, however, as the BSF and academies programmes are further merged. Academies are procured through the national academies framework, which consists of six contractors, but PfS is about to start procuring a new, and probably larger, framework. ‘Academies are quicker because they follow a defined bidding route with faster timescales,’ says Nick Gibb, preconstruction director at Willmott Dixon, which is on the current framework and has worked on a number of academy and BSF projects.

The thinking is that a number of smaller BSF schemes will be procured through the academies framework, their size making the establishment of a LEP unnecessary. PfS’s Byles says this will provide an opportunity for smaller bidders to participate in the process and points out that Middlesbrough and Sunderland have gone down this route for their BSF projects. Gibb, meanwhile, thinks that smaller players have plenty of room to establish themselves in the schools arena.

‘The quality of delivery, having a local team and local relationships are very important, not size,’ he says.

The government has also been busy reviewing the whole BSF process to make it more bidder-friendly. It has conducted a pre-procurement review, to increase local authorities’ readiness for the programme, and a procurement review, the results of which are set to shave up to 30% on bid costs through measures including more comprehensive prequalification and reducing the competition to two bidders at 29 weeks (instead of 44). It is now conducting a review of the operational LEPs, which Bouygues’ Gill has contributed to and believes will result in a more efficient and workable process.

If he is right, bidders for future BSF projects will no longer be working in the dark and this alone will be reassuring for some, although Gibb warns that there is no single simple solution to any schools project. ‘Every school and community are unique, so your design and engagement have to fit this,’ he says. ‘It’s important that you don’t take a one-size-fits-all approach to all new projects.’ This is particularly true given the fact that BSF projects are likely to be increasingly tied to wider regeneration projects and work on BSF could lead to work on a wide range of other community facilities, such as leisure and healthcare centres.

Added to that, the government’s £9bn Primary Capital Programme, which will focus on 800 of England’s primary schools and is due to get under way next year, could well be tied in to authorities’ BSF or academies work. This all means that, whatever the next news story, you may no longer be able to afford to miss out on your school work.

LEP in action

One of the key procurement innovations of BSF is the local education partnership, or LEP, a public-private partnership that is set up by local authorities that have a large number of BSF projects to deliver over a number of years. Waltham Forest is one local authority that has gone down the LEP route and has its first new-build BSF school – Frederick Bremner – opening this month.

We have to provide an educational platform that serves the whole country

CM spoke to three of the key LEP partners to find out how the new model is working – and what they have learned

The client

Roger Taylor, chief executive, Waltham Forest Council

‘We’re a wave 1 and wave 5 authority. We put ourselves forward for wave 1 because we’d had very successful primary school PFI projects beforehand so we’d built up quite a good track record – and we had a very old set of schools. There are three schools in wave 1 – two refurbs and one new build.

‘We didn’t follow the path most local authorities do in that we relied much more heavily on our own internal resources, which had been built up by doing previous PFI projects. These are never easy deals and BSF is even more complex than PFI because you’re looking to fix the framework within which you can commission a vast range of later projects. Wave 1, which included closing the deal for the whole BSF project and the local education partnership, probably took us around about two years.

‘We have recently got approval from the Department for Children, Schools and Families and Partnerships for Schools for the rest of the programme, which is about £270-£280m. There are about 12 schools in wave 5, some new provision, some remodelling. Our objective, with one single exception, is to get them all completed by 2012. That’s not only going to put huge pressure on the council, it’s also going to put some significant pressure on Bouygues because it’s an awful lot of construction activity in a short period of time.

‘If we wanted to have a consistent steady flow of projects, forming a LEP was the easiest way of doing it. It does reduce the transaction costs. We’re just starting to work our way into the LEP and now we’ve come to terms with understanding the responsibilities between the council as client and the LEP as provider, it’s starting to work really well.

‘We’re also starting to think about what else we can procure from Bouygues through the local education partnership in relation to other facilities on site. For example, we’re about to start a major programme for the re-provision of our leisure centres and we’re thinking about what community facilities we can put on the school sites using Bouygues as our construction partner. It makes perfect sense having been through this enormously expensive procurement process not to have to do any more than we have to again, but EU rules need to be observed so there are limits beyond which we can’t go.’

The contractor

John Baker, Waltham Forest LEP general manager, Bouygues

‘Challenging is the word that comes to mind for this project. But I think we’ve worked quite well with Waltham Forest Council to resolve any issues – by regular meetings and holding various workshops to try to build relationships. It’s all about getting people to work together and understand there is one key objective, and that is to get the projects finished for the benefit of the children. Like anything that’s new it takes a while for it to bed in, for people to get used to it, accept it and work with it, but every day gets better.

‘The intention is to get the teachers and children involved in the project early. Unfortunately, because BSF is new, it’s very difficult to get people to understand the need for their involvement. It’s going to have to improve in the future so our intention is to hold various workshops to make sure we do capture their interests and can understand their expectations early enough. So the embracing of this partnership approach by everybody has been a key problem.

I’ve worked in every sector and schools is probably the most complicated I’ve ever worked in

‘The other thing that people tend to underestimate quite a bit, including the supply chain themselves, is the detail and the extent of the ICT. Everyone says it’s complex in schools and lots of people have dealt with it in office buildings or possibly hospitals, but they only scratch the surface by comparison.

‘It’s complicated because you have to provide an educational platform that serves the whole country, so there’s some kind of standard, and then everything has to link in to that and so when any child on any desk opens their computer – whether in Birmingham, Southend or Cornwall – they see the same sort of images and recognise the same sort of displays on the screen. Then there are so many different types of software and so many different types of controls to be implemented – such as cashless catering, electronic registration.

‘It’s the first time we’ve worked with [ICT provider] Ramesys. It’s been enlightening and has also presented challenges for them I expect. They’ve been very helpful and supportive in the partnering role and it’s a relationship we’ve tried to develop and would like to continue with. Again, there’s this expectation from the stakeholder which we need to engage with earlier, which creates problems. We have learned a lot.’

The ICT provider

Mark Hoyland, chief operating officer, Ramesys

‘Waltham Forest was our first joint construction-ICT bid: the relationship with Bouygues was fairly new and it was the first time we’d been involved in a LEP. It’s been quite challenging. The LEP’s responsibility is to be executive sponsor and really ensure that the programme delivers.

‘The LEP is also quite a good room for arbitration because there are always going to be pinch points – construction programmes are notoriously difficult to predict in terms of delivery and from an ICT contractor perspective it constrains us. The opening tends to coincide with term time and the problem is that if there are construction delays our window for implementation is squeezed in.

‘We’re delivering our fourth school in Manchester and it’s become a well-oiled machine, it’s become a repeat business for us so we’ve learned what works well and what doesn’t, both physically with the implementation and with the relationship, so with each school it gets better and better. The same will be the case with Waltham Forest. I think everyone in the local education authority underestimated the amount of effort required on the authority and schools side. It was almost like, “we’re subcontracting this so somebody should come along and do it”, but the key outcomes are about improvements in teaching and learning so someone from a teaching perspective has to drive some of the debate and talk about where they want to go. That’s been quite a challenge in all the authorities.

‘In the first school we weren’t involved in the design and there have been problems as a result of that, so now we are. Now we’ve got ourselves plugged in to the design phases and we’ve developed some fairly standard design specification information that says this is the minimum spec of desk that will make life easier for the construction side of things.

‘It’s not just the desktops and laptops the children use, it’s the wireless infrastructure, the telephony, it’s the access control, the follow-me printing, the cashless catering. The whole point is that it all integrates so teachers and parents can have a look at where the children were, what they were eating a lunchtime and what homework they’re set. I’ve been in IT for 25 years and worked in every sector and it’s probably the most complicated sector I’ve ever worked in.

‘Waltham Forest wants to engage us in the Primary Capital Programme as well. With it being a capital fund it’s outside BSF and they have a finite amount of money. They are recognising that they can leverage services off what is already implemented so that money can go a lot further. Nearly every authority we’re talking to at the moment wants us to develop a plan to wrap primary into the secondary estate from an infrastructure perspective. It makes a whole lot of sense. You get the efficiencies and when children transfer from primary schools it’s seamless.” cm

CM caught up with Tim Byles, chief executive of Partnerships for Schools

Are you happy with the way BSF has progressed so far?

In its early days BSF did go slower than was forecast. That was for two reasons: the forecasts were over-optimistic compared with other similar-scale procurements; and in the early part of the programme, the local authorities were not only in the most challenging areas, but also some that were most challenged themselves, which made it difficult for the programme to get under way speedily.

When I joined PfS towards the end of 2006 just one deal had been concluded. Now 22 have been concluded, we’ve got our first 13 schools open and another 22 due to open in September. We’ve got 80 of the 150 local authorities now involved in BSF and the pace and scale of delivery is increasing all the time. But there isn’t a text book about how to do something like this – it’s an unprecedented programme in its scale and reach.
There were some criticisms of the designs initially. How have you responded?

It’s true that there have been some designs on the very early projects which have not been of the standard we’d like. There have also been some excellent designs. At the beginning of this financial year we took over the responsibility for managing the contract with Cabe and also the contract with the 4ps and with the National College of School Leadership. This follows discussions in the education select committee last year, which recommended that BSF has a single gateway to manage all interests, which is Partnerships for Schools.

We’ve been working closely with Cabe looking at how best to have an assessment process that is fair and objective and how to use it in a way that helps raise standards of design for new schools. I hope later this year we’ll be able to introduce a design threshold so that designs below the minimum design standard we set don’t progress.

You’ve been conducting some reviews of the BSF process. What stage are you at?

We started off looking at pre-procurement, how local authorities can be prepared to come into BSF, and we reduced the time by around a 30%. More importantly we improved the quality of the pre-procurement by looking at the needs of the whole local authority area and being clear about what resources needed to be committed from the local authority and from Partnerships for Schools. We also make sure people are ready to enter BSF, in terms of the internal resourcing and governance structures in the local authority.

We’ve then had a look at the procurement process and that review has concluded by improving the time by a further two months and importantly reducing the costs of entry to BSF by around 30%, which is getting on for a saving of £250m. Part of that saving is to reduce the wasted designs from lots of people bidding, so the detailed work on design will now happen when we’re down to a two-horse race competitive dialogue process.
Now we’re just in the middle of an operational local education partnership review. We’re learning the lessons from existing LEPs and we’re looking at ways we can tune that for the future because we’re likely to have some very large investments but also some smaller ones. We’ve had some smaller schemes already – Middlesbrough and Sunderland BSF using our national academies framework – and that’s worked very well and some authorities that have smaller-scale investments will be able to use frameworks and more localised procurement mechanisms in future.
So we’re looking for faster means of procuring smaller groups of schools – that gives an opportunity for smaller bidders to participate in the process. So far it has tended to be dominated by consortia led by larger contractors but we are seeing the market continuing to develop. We’ve got 24 live bidders in BSF, we’ve had three new entrants in the past two months, so we’re seeing a market that looks buoyant and continues to attract investors.

Are you, as has been suggested in the press, in the process of doubling the size of the academies framework?

Later this year we are likely to start the procurement of a new national framework, but the dimensions of that are not yet clear in terms of size and reach and those decisions will be taken once the operational LEP review is concluded. We want to be clear about the extent to which BSF, as
well as academies, may be procured by framework. We have a number of small procurements coming through as well as some very large ones, so we need to make sure we haven’t got a one-size-fits-all approach to BSF.