With school buildings crumbling faster than we can maintain or replace them, how will we cope with the looming bulge in the school-age population? Steve Beechey calls for a rapid response

Earlier this month, the prime minister declared that building homes for Britain was at the top of her agenda, summoning a selection of housebuilders and developers to Number 10 for a summit on the problem. I would argue there is an issue that deserves equal billing on her domestic agenda: how we tackle the desperate condition of our school buildings.

Last year the Department for Education reported on a massive population bulge that will create a 10% increase in the number of children of secondary school age within the next decade – that’s equivalent to roughly 750,000 additional school places needed. Head teachers are warning that parents will find it increasingly difficult to find children a place at a school of their choice. 

Now consider our crumbling educational estate. Notwithstanding a flurry of activity under the Blair administration, which saw new schools delivered under PFI and Building Schools for the Future in the late 1990s and early/mid 2000s, the preceding decade had seen school building grind into a very low gear. According to the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) – the body responsible for building the majority of publicly funded schools – there are slightly fewer than 25,000 schools in England and Wales. Now consider that the average school has only a 60-year lifespan, with most of these buildings never properly maintained in any modern understanding of the word. Essentially we are facing the very real prospect of schools becoming effectively unusable at a rate of 400 a year. 

A critical need 

It’s a perfect storm, and it’s coming right when we need to be giving our young people the best possible opportunities to succeed as they face an uncertain economic future post-Brexit. Yes, we have a crisis in housebuilding, but if our children can’t get access to education, how will we generate the wealth to be able to create homes?

I’m being deliberately dramatic, but you get my point. We need to take this issue seriously, now.

Work is happening, but so far it’s only incremental. The Priority Schools Building Programme that began in 2012 has seen fewer than 500 new schools or upgrades delivered in its first two phases. A third phase, which would provide the funding for around 350 more, has stalled, presumed missing somewhere in Phillip Hammond’s in-tray. 

It’s a gloomy outlook so far, but I don’t think it’s a hopeless one. While the PFI schemes of the Blair-Brown years have been discredited of late, there are lessons we can learn from them. Under PFI, full life-cycle maintenance was a contractual requirement, maximising building lifespan. The schools now being built have no maintenance programmes in place. Instead we see head teachers and school governors controlling all funding for their schools, and diverting money possibly intended for essential maintenance to teaching. The government could and should be stepping in to ensure the funding mechanism is such that money for maintenance is ring-fenced.

The average school has a 60-year lifespan, with most of these buildings never properly maintained in any modern understanding of the word. Essentially we are facing the very real prospect of schools becoming effectively unusable at a rate of 400 a year

After an initial property survey of the school estate four years ago, and a subsequent update last year, the ESFA has an accurate picture of the condition of every publicly managed school in England and Wales. This valuable data could, given the right political will, be used to underpin a centrally managed, properly costed, national school building and maintenance framework. It would drive efficiencies and eliminate the diversion of funds we see at local level.

By standardising the requirements of all new schools it funds via its facilities output specification, which sets out the design goals for construction teams, the ESFA is doing what it can to oil the wheels. For a company like Wates, this clearly defined set of specifications has meant we could design in response our own “kit of parts”, called Adapt, which has allowed us to cut building costs dramatically for new schools.

The ESFA is also looking to technology and modern building techniques to deliver schools faster. Off-site construction is increasingly looked on favourably and can allow rapid delivery, essential to provide capacity with burgeoning class sizes. Even modular buildings, once no more than lightweight, mobile classrooms, are now robust, built with concrete floors. 

An off-site, modular future

If I could predict what the future would look like for schools building, I would expect a mixed economy of sorts, using a hybrid of off-site, modular construction and standardisation.

I’d also hope that we might look beyond the challenge of simply building schools, to making them fully sustainable. It’s mystifying to me that our state schools – the very places where we expect our young people to learn about the world around them – are not required to incorporate sustainability features as a matter of course.

Lastly, let’s seize the opportunity presented by this challenge to tackle another issue: the dearth of entrants to the construction industry. We all bemoan the lack of any effective co-ordinated programme to attract young people in the numbers needed. To my mind there can be no better introduction to this fascinating industry than learning about it at school.

Steve Beechey is group strategy director and managing director for government affairs at the Wates Group