Question marks remain over whether the government’s new Education Funding Agency – and construction strategy – will be a success
The government’s decision this week to axe delivery body Partnerships for Schools has been presented by education secretary Michael Gove as a bureaucracy-cutting exercise - enabling people to “see more clearly who is accountable for what and to speak more directly to government”. But for those construction firms involved in the education sector, there has to be concern over what system will be put in its place.
When Gove cancelled the £55bn Building Schools for the Future last July, the industry - even while dealing with the shock of the loss of one of its biggest work streams - pretty much accepted that the cost of school building needed to be cut. And the obvious ways of doing this - cutting procurement bureaucracy and producing simpler, standardised designs - were clear long before they were published in Sebastian James’ review.
PfS, like most quangos, has not always had the best reception from industry. But over the last two years its officials had used their experience to start driving exactly the kind of procurement changes and ways of working that the government, and industry, wanted.
There is a danger that procuring the next generation of schools will be led by those with little or no experience
The industry will now be hoping that many PfS officials transfer into the government’s new, more tightly controlled Education Funding Agency, which will be charged with overseeing capital funding for schools. But it seems likely that more of the power actually to procure schools could be devolved to a local level - against James Review advice - meaning the ability of the agency’s officials to drive savings will be severely limited.
The warning to government is clear: ensure the government does talk “more directly” to industry. If a sizeable amount of PfS’ expertise is lost, and that which remains has a reduced scope to influence the building programme, there is a danger that procuring the next generation of schools will be led by those with little or no direct experience.
Direct engagement with the industry’s leading players in the education sector - through the new government construction board and the education department - is going to be even more important. And it needs to happen before the government finds it has set up a system under which the savings it is banking on from standardised designs and economies of scale simply cannot be achieved.
Sarah Richardson, deputy editor
We need radicals
How is the government’s construction strategy going to work in practice? We’ve always asked why the government, as a client, cannot be more like a BAA or a Stanhope. Now Paul Morrell will be busy selling the benefits of synergy and economies of scale to the various and, often, competing government departments. But this isn’t just about having a construction man on the inside. It’s about cultural change in Whitehall. It can only really be achieved when there’s little cash in the coffers and the thinking has to be radical, so the timing may be right. The problem is that each department has its own way, power bases, expertise, local ambitions and budgets, which means there is not quite the appetite to drive such efficiencies and have spending scrutinised so publicly.