The last time a new government was formed the school building sector was handed an abrupt halt


The last time a new government was formed, back in 2010, the school building sector was handed an abrupt halt to its work rather than a promising fresh start. The axing of more than 700 Building Schools for the Future (BSF) schemes, and the review of around 100 academy projects, left a sector mired in uncertainty and disarray. Project teams were stood down and thousands of jobs put at risk. The two-year hiatus before BSF’s scaled-back replacement, the Priority School Building Programme (PSBP), was introduced, left teachers working in many of the schools that had been lined up for replacement battling a legacy of crumbling buildings that only worsened with time.

Compared to that catastrophic blow, the early days of this government have passed in relative calm. But, although further cuts are not on the cards, school building remains constrained by the Conservatives’ austerity agenda. And over the past five years, the problems facing the school estate have arguably deepened, as the condition of buildings so far unreached by the PSBP has deteriorated.

In addition, time is running out to meet the projected shortfall of places. An estimated 880,000 extra places will be needed by 2023 - and even though additional spaces are being created, activity is failing to keep pace with anticipated demand.

In 2013, the coalition promised that £21bn for capital spending on education would be made available over this current parliament. So far the government has stuck by that figure but details around the spending, which will include maintenance and repairs as well as new build and capacity extensions, are yet to be revealed. Those working in the sector, both in schools and in education construction, will hope that the forthcoming Autumn Statement will include a third wave of the PSBP (or an equivalent programme) and a rerun of the schools’ property data survey that is essential to making the case for investment. Whether that will happen is far from certain.

Time is running out to meet the projected shortfall of places. An estimated 880,000 extra places will be needed by 2023

The school building sector, subjected to lengthy governmental review after the perceived excesses of BSF, was probably the area of publicly funded construction given the biggest kick by the coalition - a kick that was supposed to force the sector to innovate to reduce the cost of building. Challenged not just to achieve the cuts of 30% applied to many departments but to develop and roll out standardised designs, this was the sector under most government scrutiny. As a result, it is the one where the results of that efficiency drive can most tangibly be seen. But the failure of government to procure on a wider scale or to respond to industry advice to boost fees in line with the market in a way that encourages innovation, means it is not capitalising on that work as much as it could be. This is a missed opportunity on a scale potentially far more grand than some of the derided projects of the BSF programme.

However, it is encouraging to see examples continuing to emerge from school providers and industry working directly together to find new ways of solving the problem of providing sufficient - and sufficiently good quality - schools. Two examples we highlight this week are David Morley Architects’ creation of two primary schools within a residential complex in London’s King’s Cross, and the latest modular building venture from the design arm of procurement organisation Scape.

Against a continuing mismatch of public spending and demonstrable need, these kind of direct partnerships have enabled some areas to deliver enough places for their pupils; places that, while they may not have the bells and whistles or impressive atriums of previous schools, can provide stimulating, practical and safe environments for children unwittingly caught in the middle of the economic shifts of the past decade.

But only one organisation has the influence and the mechanisms to make these pockets of improvement genuinely widespread. Which is why, even without increasing spending, central government urgently needs to put addressing the challenge of school provision at the heart of its policy agenda - and to do so with the same zeal with which it went about cutting that work five years ago.

Sarah Richardson, editor