An increase in spending on school building now could prevent greater costs further down the line

Sarah Richardson

For schools battling to teach growing numbers of pupils in crumbling legacy buildings, the point at which the coalition came to power and scrapped the £55bn Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme should have been the lowest moment of the last five years. The dawn of the austerity era of public spending, and a long hiatus while the government worked out how it could deliver more for less, left a cloud of uncertainty over schools and their supply chains alike. But once the - albeit vastly reduced - replacement building scheme, the Priority School Building Programme (PSBP), was finally launched, that cloud should have started to lift.

So to hear one headteacher list the myriad problems with his PSBP building project to a Commons select committee, describing doing so as a form of “therapy” which might help him overcome the “worst experience” he has had as head, is as concerning as it is unexpected. Part of the worry is over the apparent number of problems on this particular scheme, at Stratford Academy - which schools minister David Laws acknowledged has probably been the most difficult PSBP project to deliver to date. But more widely, the headteacher’s evidence, alongside others at the committee hearing, is of concern because of the questions it raises over the legacy of some aspects of the programme as a whole.

Of course, any discussion about the success - or otherwise - of the PSBP has to bear in mind both the dire economic straits the country was in when it was launched, and the huge costs of its predecessor programme. BSF, with its fondness for atriums and grand designs, had become a vehicle for architectural ambition far beyond what most would view as necessary for supportive, functional school environments - and at the same time, torturous bidding processes wasted millions that could have been spent on upgrading some of the thousands of schools left untouched when the programme was cancelled.

Against that backdrop, and faced with the twin pressures, both increasing by the day, of vast swathes of estate falling into disrepair and a growing number of children lining up to use it, the solution represented by PSBP was an adequate, and even admirable, response to a very difficult equation. It offered a way to build almost two schools for the price of one under BSF, and promised teaching environments that, although slightly more pared back than some consultants believed was ideal, were a vast improvement on those where many pupils were being educated.

But that was then, and this is now. Although the pressure on places and condition has not let up, the economy is improving. Views on the best approach to the national deficit are clearly still divided. But when it comes to spending on schools there is increasing evidence emerging on the PSBP that “savings” being made now are a false economy which will lead to the need for greater spending a little further down the line.

The first example, and most emotive, is over the reductions to space standards imposed under PSBP guidelines. Some, including the government’s former design adviser on schools, Mairi Johnson, have suggested that these cuts have gone too far, and suggest that for a small boost in funding, there could be a significant increase in the flexibility and adaptability of schools that could potentially guard against the need for future adaptation as teaching methods evolve.

Second, also linked to longevity, is the quality of the materials being used, and the maintenance bill likely to be faced in future. Several construction firms have acknowledged that they are using materials that meet the minimum specification requirement only; and the Stratford headteacher believes the quality of the finishes on his school could lead to “significant financial costs further down the line”. With the country already facing a huge backlog of school repairs, the last thing it needs is for new builds to be added to that list prematurely.
Third, there is the issue over the cost being allocated per square metre to contractors to build the schools. Given the huge volume of work needed to upgrade the estate, it is absolutely understandable that the Education Funding Agency (EFA) did not bow at the first sign of market pressure to increase these allowances. But construction companies are businesses, and if they cannot make a return on school projects that is comparable to other sectors, then they will turn elsewhere.

So if the EFA finds itself in a position where it struggles to secure the services of contractors it trusts, then it would surely seem a better decision to slightly increase allowances now, than risk lengthy procurement delays on desperately needed buildings or costly contractual wrangling further down the line.

With a new administration just weeks away, the possibility that savings are being made now that could be storing up costs for the very near future is surely something EFA’s officials need to be urgently exploring. And, the evidence so far would suggest, the case for more funding is one that it and construction firms in the sector need to be getting ready to make with strength.

Sarah Richardson, editor