On the face of it, Miliband's timing couldn't be better. His £45-60bn programme to upgrade 4000 schools by 2020 comes just as everyone's scrambling to replace cancelled office projects. The most natural recipients of Miliband's munificence – small firms with track records in the schools sector – might suspect that it will be carved up by Jarvis & Co, who've got equally good track records in snaffling juicy PFI contracts. But Miliband's officials are resolute in their desire to broaden the market. PFI will be used only for the largest projects; smaller works, such as sports halls, will be procured by traditional means, and in bijou packages that can be managed by local outfits.
All bidders will be assisted by the Building Schools for the Future programme's other features, which are designed to cut tendering costs and speed up delivery. These include standard contracts (sorry, Mr Lawyer) and design exemplars, such as those showcased under a separate initiative, entitled – confusingly – Classrooms of the Future (pages 40-46). And were construction to need any further encouragement, the Treasury is hinting that this model will soon be extended to other areas of public procurement, such as town halls and leisure centres.
That's the idea, anyway. Will it happen? For construction's sake, let's hope so. But it's still early days. The Building Schools for the Future blueprint is out for consultation until the end of this month, and will no doubt be tweaked before the first contracts are let next spring. But what's not in question is the political momentum behind the initiative. Miliband genuinely believes – like his forebears in the 1960s – that better school buildings will result in better educated (and better behaved) children. The construction industry, for one, will hope he's right, as it's currently suffering more than most from a dearth of bright youngsters. Nonetheless, Miliband is risking his reputation, and a great deal of public money, to prove his theory. At only 37, he's young enough to still be in the Cabinet in 2020 when judgment is passed on the venture.
There are two ways in which Miliband's ambition may be stymied. First, the public sector might bungle its role as client – and not for the first time. The local education partnerships that will manage projects will have an alarming number of stakeholders, from council chiefs to headteachers, and even schoolchildren. Trust me I'm a teenager, indeed. Whoever's in charge, it's imperative that they agree what they want at the outset, and resist the temptation to fiddle with the specification during construction, or costs will escalate and the National Audit Office will give them the PFI treatment.
The second danger is that the industry reverts to type. With so much money to spend, Miliband is right to demand better value for it, and for investment in training and R&D from those firms that stand to gain a 20-year income stream. It will require 21st-century businesses to build 21st-century schools. Unlike the average A level these days, this is a massive test for everyone involved. But then, the rewards for an A-starred performance are much greater, too.