The government is to be applauded for putting £2bn more into school building but needs to deliver on better information

Steve Beechey

Since the original (and seismic) announcement of the Priority School Building Programme way back in 2012, observers across the education sector have pondered the question: what’s next? While the education secretary’s pledge to rebuild 261 schools across England was a significant one, it was clear from the outset that this positive step forward needed to act as the first building block in a wider rebuilding of the school estate.

Construction in particular waited with interest to hear whether the gaps in the programme around refurbishment and repairs were going to be filled by the coalition or kicked into the long grass of the next parliament. It was with this as background that the industry waited for news about the fate of those schools which missed out on the first round of priority funding announced two years ago.  

First, the good news. Reassuringly, the recent announcement by the schools minister David Laws of a further £2bn in capital funding for the programme means that the Department for Education (DfE) has answered at least some of the criticism that it wasn’t doing enough to address this particular problem. It’s also an acknowledgement that whilst major rebuilding work is continuing apace across many projects, the truth of the matter is that hundreds if not thousands of schools have been (and are) in need of funding to address the state of individual buildings or facilities on their sites.

The ongoing work with the chosen 261 schools of “PSBP Mark I” is of course vital, but it was clear for many months that action needed to be taken to assist other less prominent projects. Ultimately, for the DfE to truly make the argument that it is reshaping the school estate on more robust foundations than those of Building Schools for the Future (BSF) it simply had to take the initiative where expenditure is concerned.  

There needs to be a cultural shift which can only take place if the DfE follows through on its commitment to launch a root-and-branch review of the exact condition of the school estate

But for Laws’ announcement to truly make an impact there needs to be a cultural shift on how the school estate is viewed and assessed by both contractors and local authorities. This can only take place if the DfE follows through on its commitment to launch a root-and-branch review of the exact condition of the school estate. To ensure that funding is targeted at those regions most in need of additional support, the dataset available to contractors needs to be more current, relevant and above all detailed for commercial decisions to be taken in a truly informed manner by the industry.

Granted, steps are already afoot to address this shortfall in figures. The Property Data Survey Programme which has been in the pipeline (and delayed) for many months aims to provide a complete picture of the estate, with regular updates from local authorities thereafter set to ensure that this information remains up-to-date and to the point. But, given that many existing frameworks will be used to procure work under PSBP2, it is essential that contractors be given the tools to make educated, rational choices about how to target their offerings. Lack of resource on the part of contractors in dealing with the absence of clear data on the school estate, could prove to be a major obstacle for those projects delivered under the next stage of the programme.

Time will tell as to whether this survey helps the department make good on its promises. But for the moment, construction can breathe a little easier that the DfE has taken the correct steps towards transforming Britain’s school estate into a world leader in design, capacity and technological capability. 

Stephen Beechey is group investment director and head of education at Wates