December’s progress report into school procurement went largely unnoticed – but if the UK is to provide the education places its population needs, both the government and the industry need to sit up and pay attention

Steve Beechey

This month’s Budget will be a final opportunity for chancellor George Osborne to take major steps to address the shortage of school places before the next election in 2015.
He has some data to help him, in the form of the Department for Education’s progress update on the 2011 James Review into the delivery of new school places.

Released without fanfare back in December, the report described what progress has been made in fulfilling the review’s recommendations, and considered which have either not been implemented, or have “only partially been acted upon, and asked why”. It set itself the ambitious objective of “stimulating further progress” and vigorous discussion across the education sector, and as such could have provided a valuable benchmark for Osborne’s spending decisions later this month.

But it feels like the report fell on fallow ground. It’s a shame - on closer inspection, it provides some revealing insights into school procurement.

This year’s Budget must ensure the government’s eyes stay on the prize of providing a school system attuned to the emerging demands of 21st-century education

For example, if I had told you two years ago that school procurement times would be hugely reduced and standardised design embraced, you may not have believed me. Sure, many of the major issues around pupil places, procurement and space were acknowledged back then, but many of the practicalities about how to address them still needed to be planned. But here we are in 2014, with Whitmore Park, the first capital-funded school procured under the Priority School Building Programme, nearing completion. So there is progress.

But the report concedes that more will have to be done to address the spatial challenges that impact on the use of baseline school designs. Sites in London and other major cities present huge challenges due to constricted space and lack of availability. December’s announcement by the education secretary of an additional £2.35bn for London’s local authorities was squarely aimed at addressing this issue. It will be interesting to see what effect this has on the capital’s schools from a design standpoint. Will space restrictions force designers to think even more creatively when they’re at the drawing board? Or should I say computer screen?

When it comes to the capital, the chancellor’s statement later this month will need to ensure that local authorities are really able to capitalise on the lifeline that London weighting presents. Making good on the promise to empower local government to “strategically plan at a local level”, will be essential if many of the James Review’s original aims are to be achieved.

Overall, construction got a B+ for its performance since the unveiling of the James Review’s original findings, and there’s definitely still more work to do. The UK still needs a projected 300,000 primary school places between 2014 and 2018, and 200,000 additional secondary school places. This amounts to a potential outlay of £7.1bn during the same period. With a fragile recovery still informing spending decisions, these are stark figures.

So why was December’s report seemingly ignored? For a start, the timing of the publication was strange. If it was meant to stimulate debate throughout the industry, then why release the findings on a day when the DfE made one of its biggest recent commitments to capital spending, in the process ensuring that it was partially buried? But it is still puzzling exactly how a comprehensive independent study - a mid-term report on the sector’s progress, if you like - was allowed to fall by the wayside largely without comment.

This shouldn’t have happened. At a time when the shortage of pupil places remains acute, an opportunity has been missed to take the debate on funding and provision for school places to the next level.

With time ticking away before the Budget, we’ve long been waiting for a frank debate on what the sector could be doing better, and how the Treasury can respond to the needs of the market even more effectively. Coherent dialogue quite naturally depends on a constant exchange of views between the government and industry to ensure that the industry is on the right track in terms of implementation and innovation where the Priority School Building Programme is concerned.

As a result, the scene is set for the Budget to fill this vacuum, and we hope the chancellor will reassure the sector that the recent positive statements of intent will be translated into effective action.

We’ve had interim updates and comprehensive reviews, as well as setbacks and victories in the last two years - this year’s Budget must act as the lightning rod to galvanise education and ensure that the government’s eyes stay firmly on the prize of providing a school system attuned to the emerging demands of 21st-century education. 

Stephen Beechey is managing director education sector & investment solutions for Wates Construction

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