The government's 21st-century schools extravaganza is in deep, deep trouble.

On the big political stage the furore over peerages for sponsors is threatening to undermine the city academy programme - not to mention booing off the prime minister. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the construction industry wrestles frantically with the practicalities of delivery.

And it is a mammoth task: remember, the industry has to produce 200 newly built or extensively refurbished academies for the inner cities by 2010, while doing the same for 3500 other secondary schools by 2019 - that is, as we said on our cover two weeks ago, one project every 36 hours for 13 years. Two years on, not one of the local education partnerships - the public-private bodies that are to deliver these schools - has been formed. The £5bn academy programme is faring a little better - 27 have opened or are under way - but these have run into their own problems, and have now rightly been brought under the Building Schools for the Future programme.

At the heart of both programmes has been two big issues: philosophy and money. Blair's promise of education, education and education came with the idea that design would lift educational standards. So we had a suite of designs for exemplar schools, and academies that would resemble grown-up glass edifices, designed by architectural superstars, and intended to encourage pupils to believe they were starting an exciting career, rather than a boring day at school. Now those exemplars are long gone, and the academies are about to follow. Many reports have been critical, and the latest argues that it would be better to build conventional school and use the £8m saved to pay 276 teachers.

That should give everyone pause for thought. No parent wants their children taught in a prefab, but winning the Stirling Prize is probably not high on their list of priorities. The challenge for Stephen Bowker, the head of Building Schools for the Future, is to ensure that design combines flair, function and affordability. That will require more than a modicum of ingenuity, as the budget has already been cut to the bone: a secondary school now costs £600 per m2, compared with £1000 per m2 for an academy. This in turn is delaying the formation of LEPs. That budget is all very well on a greenfield site, but if there's no money for prelims or abnormal site conditions - not to mention ecological features - what do you do? And the clock is racing. Every month adds millions in costs, not least from soaring energy prices (page 13). You don't need a PhD in maths to conclude that the sums really don't add up.

Denise Chevin, editor

Another reason to read Building

When Carillion snapped up Mowlem in March, everyone knew there was a risk that there were skeletons hidden at the back of the cupboard. And, sure enough, Carillion was forced to announce this week that it is to make a £90m writedown on contracts, in addition to the £45m it made at the time of the sale. But to discover outstanding costs on deals that Mowlem had long since completed, and problems at schools in Exeter - which this humble journal highlighted last September - beggars belief. So just how diligent was the due diligence process?