The ‘smoking gun’ of the school places shortage is being exacerbated by a gap between government funding and the cost of provision

Marcus Fagent

Meeting the demand for “basic need”, or school places, is the government’s most urgent construction challenge in the education sector. The growing number of children without schools to go to, and the much larger number of children being taught in sub-standard accommodation could yet become a smoking gun for the coalition at the 2015 election. 

The problem is becoming increasingly difficult to solve due to a cocktail of issues: these include the difficulty in forecasting the need for school places, the absence of suitable sites, and the affordability gap. This gap, between the money that local authorities are being given by central government and the true cost of provision is in part due to limited funding and in part due to procurement shortcomings. 

To provide more places local authorities have a choice between building new schools and expanding existing schools. For a variety of reasons expansion is usually favoured. These reasons are practical and educational but often it is because local politicians, and sometimes officers don’t want free schools. However school expansions are more expensive in capital cost to implement and cost between £18,000 and £25,000 per new place. By using the Education Funding Agency (EFA) “Baseline Design” principles and taking advantage of some of the standardised solutions now being offered new-build free schools can be built at £10,000 per place, albeit not including site acquisition costs.

It could still be concluded that the government is starving local authorities of funding so that they are driven into the arms of a free schools solution

The EFA allocation of £982m given to local authorities in July 2013 for school places approximates to £11,500 per place and was a significant increase on the £6,500 per place which the previous £1.6bn February 2013 allocation represented. While the EFA has completed an admirable and rigorous analysis of the need for places it could still be concluded that the government is starving local authorities of funding so that they are driven into the arms of a free schools solution.

However, other reasons for the affordability gap have been failings in procurement by local authorities which have pushed up delivery costs. Authorities have lost in-house capability and capacity, and pressured by time are making some basic errors which have added costs of £5,000 per place, and more on school place programmes. These include not adequately defining client requirements, not managing stakeholders and using contracting routes which appear to offer speed and flexibility but which place clients in a single contractor relationship before there is a defined product. These are easy things to fix on future programmes but local authorities have to ask for support and the industry needs to give the right advice.

Marcus Fagent is sector lead for education at EC Harris