The EFA is facing a huge task – but it must think about the legacy it will leave for future generations

Sarah Richardson

The changes architects and contractors have been asked to make in their approaches to school building over the past four years almost amount to a wholesale rewriting of the curriculum.

Since the coalition’s abrupt cancellation of the £55bn Building Schools for the Future programme in 2010, an era of grand education design that was so extreme a school could – and did – win the Stirling prize has been replaced with a virtually exclusive emphasis on functionality. A quest for uniqueness has been replaced by the rhetoric of repetition, and, at the heart of it all, spiralling budgets have been replaced by a deep drilling down on costs.

Contractors and their design teams have responded valiantly, if not always wholeheartedly, and in the early days of the new approach produced a myriad of pared back, standardised approaches that sought to build more for less.

But that was at the bottom of a construction market, where the scent of a pipeline of schools work from government was enough to make companies not just accept far tighter margins for work, but even to invest at cost in developing these new approaches. Now, the sector is undergoing a sharp and radical change of its own, with clients announcing strong forward pipelines and rising tender prices.

This is a potentially serious problem for the government’s school building plans. We report this week that some contractors on the Education Funding Agency’s (EFA) main framework believe the tight returns on schools are unviable (page 9). Consequently some batches that have gone to market have not attracted a single bidder. The dangers if this pattern increases are obvious: a slowing programme in the first instance, and – potentially – the risks on delivery and quality that come with a lack of competition.

The EFA is alive to these concerns, and says it is “always reviewing its rates”. But balanced against this, the delivery agency has to face the unenviable reality that, even with the market picking up elsewhere, it is still facing a huge task to build schools at a pace that will meet the need for additional places and condition improvements in England. And that, in all likelihood, it is not going to get much more money to do it.

The quality of many of the country’s classrooms is the subject of frequent local press horror stories, and the shortage of school places is even better documented. So the moral argument must surely favour investing in as many schools as we can. But that does not mean schools should be built as cheaply as is humanly possible.

There are suggestions emerging that contractors faced with the potential long-term liabilities of PF2 contracts are choosing different materials than on capital projects, where bids are judged on upfront costs.

The implication is that they fear a maintenance cost down the line from cheap construction today.

With the PF2 element of the building programme in its infancy, it is too early to say categorically that this is a trend. But the different choices made, and the effects of them once schools are operational, should be very closely monitored.

A legacy of schools that need replacing after 10 years for the sake of a small saving now would be a cost that the public purse, and the pupils using them, should not have to bear.

Sarah Richardson, editor