The starter’s gun has sounded and the race for PSBP work is finally underway. But, with questions left unanswered, contractors may find themselves left on the starting line

Steve Beechey

For all the months of seemingly interminable build-up, there was something anticlimactic about the hotly anticipated Priority School Building Programme (PSBP) announcement.

That said, given the extent of the delays so far, any announcement is a positive and very welcome step. Education secretary Michael Gove gave the industry an indication of the government’s intent but will need to go much further into the detail if he is serious about the first of the schools being open by 2014.

The headline grabber was the fact that 326 schools, more than half of those that applied for funding under the scheme, missed out. There was never going to be enough funding for every application to be successful but this will have been bitterly disappointing to staff and pupils at those schools, some of which have been working towards funding which has been promised, but not delivered, for upwards of 10 years. How long will they have to wait for the refurbishments their buildings need, and how can headteachers keep staff and children motivated without them?

Even for those schools which were successful, however, the picture is far from clear. Some 42 schools with the most “urgent need” will receive capital funding in the form of a grant but we are still in the dark over what that means in practice and when the work will be done. It appears likely that the Education Funding Agency’s (EFA) Contractors’ Framework will be used to procure these first 42 projects, which is a sensible approach given that the framework has longevity and capacity. However, the use of grant funding serves to delay the use of project finance in the programme, despite the government’s assurances that its review of PFI would not affect the PSBP. This leaves a great deal of uncertainty over exactly how improvements to the other 219 schools will be funded and the industry simply cannot bring forward solutions before the rules of the game are made clear.

When it comes to the bulk of the PSBP work the question marks still seem endless. When will procurement start? The need is clearly urgent, so this would need to be September at the latest to maintain all-important market confidence. Which schools will be in the first wave and will they be grouped? Regional groupings would seem to make the most sense from a value-for-money perspective, with the groupings then ranked in order of most urgent need to form the sequence of waves. Will the remainder of the programme be project finance funded? Kick-starting the programme with traditional funding helps get things moving but the market will want to see project-financed schemes commencing in 2012. How involved will the schools be in the procurement? Stakeholder input must be integrated into the procurement efficiently and effectively. Perhaps most importantly, will contractors be expected to bid blind? It is essential that bids are still evaluated on the basis of best value - measuring on price alone would be a retrograde step and would not make best possible use of the funding.

It was encouraging to hear Gove acknowledge that “more schools will benefit from the programme” thanks to contractors’ efforts to find “savings in all areas”. Much of the innovation from contractors on this front has centred on standardised design. There are now a number of groundbreaking standardised school products on the market, including Wates’ Adapt School Solutions.

Gove’s ministerial statement talked about “baseline designs which will speed up the process and increase efficiencies”, but, again, that’s as far as he went. If we really want to make the schoolbuilding process as cheap and efficient as we can the requirements for standardised design need to be laid out as simply and as quickly as possible for all to see.

For all the uncertainty, the EFA is now responsible for the PSBP and, with its new leadership in place, I am confident the programme will start to take shape rapidly. The proactive manner in which the 42 schools in direst need have been fast-tracked is an example of this new leadership in action.

Although the pipeline of work itself will be vital to contractors and their supply chains, we must remember what this programme is all about - the many thousands of teachers and pupils working in severely dilapidated and inadequate school buildings and the negative impact this is having on educational outcomes. Unfortunately, hundreds of schools that needed funding missed out. Their situation underlines how crucial it is for our industry to develop solutions which help make the available funding go that bit further. The sooner we know exactly where the goalposts are, the sooner we will be able to do so.

Steve Beechey is group investment director and head of education at Wates