We don’t have enough places for kids in the schools their parents want. A new approach is needed: adapting other public buildings for education and bringing in private help to show us how

It’s the start of a new academic year. It’s also the start of the second academic year of the coalition government, and with it, we see the green shoots of educational reform beginning to show. Hundreds of academies open their doors this September, having ended the summer term as local authority-controlled schools. Alongside this wave of autonomy, 24 free schools join their ranks, creating new provision up and down the country.

Despite this encouraging start to changing the face of education provision in England, too many children are having to attend a school that is not their parents’ first, second or even third choice. Having grappled up-close with the combined effect of economic conditions and a boom in primary school-aged children, I know that it is no exaggeration to describe the situation as a demographic ticking bomb.

Unless we act now, we will not just have children who are attending their fourth choice school, but children who won’t have a place at all

While some will argue this boom was something of a Rumsfeldian “unknown unknown”, in 2017/18, we will not be able to point to this as a reason for failing to address the need for places in our secondary schools. But the problems will begin to bite before then - by 2014/15 nearly every borough in London will be in a position where the demand for pupil places outstrips supply. Unless we act now, we will not just have families whose children are attending their fourth choice school, but families where children won’t have a place at all.

The picture is further complicated by the scenario where one local school is massively over-subscribed and another has falling numbers to such an extent that closure becomes inevitable. About 500 secondary schools have more than 20-25% surplus space, which is costly to maintain.

So we need a new approach, that asks questions about our infrastructure. An approach that might mean establishing a primary school in the surplus space of an under-roll school, or a health centre or other facility. An approach that is more mobile than the status quo - where instead of fixing the use of a building in perpetuity, we make our public assets better able to respond to both demographic pressures as well as local preferences and needs.

So, what is needed to make this possible? First, individuals who are able to identify and assess sites for conversion. Second, professionals who are able to acquire the site on behalf of the group of people wishing to set up a new school. These groups want to establish new provision, but they do not typically have - nor should they be expected to have - the skills needed to navigate public procurement. And third, skills to project manage the process to ensure everything is ready for the opening of the school.

Standardisation is key to this new world order - a debate that attracts a lot of heat. We need to recognise that not only is this non-negotiable given the economic realities, but it is an issue of common sense. We know what works. Through the combined experience of BSF and the academies programme, we have now built over 400 secondary schools in the last five years. It would be utter folly to keep going back to the drawing board, given that cache of knowledge and experience.

We are seeing excellent examples of the market stepping up to the plate with regards to standardisation, but we need new delivery vehicles too

Standardisation need not mean that you have to pick from School A, B or C. What it should mean is that there is a standardised suite of sports halls, toilet blocks, science blocks - and from this catalogue, one can create a “school of parts”. Parts that are tried and tested and successful, from an educational and economic perspective.
 We are seeing some excellent examples of the market stepping up to the plate with regards to standardisation - notably Wates and Galliford Try - but we need new delivery vehicles to come forward too.

This is where organisations like my own, Cornerstone, come in, ensuring that private sector disciplines and entrepreneurialism continue to support government policy. Yes, this means delivering a commercial return to investors, but also delivering a social return - locally through the provision of assets and services that communities want and need, as well as an annual share of profits being donated to the third sector.

These are challenging times for anyone involved in public sector infrastructure; but they are also exciting times, where innovative approaches must be part of ensuring that we continue to invest in our communities.

Tim Byles is chief executive of Cornerstone Assets

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