Public capital spending on education was less last year than at any time since Labour’s Building Schools for the Future programme got up to speed 17 years ago. In the wake of the RAAC crisis and a critical National Audit Office report, Joey Gardiner asks what can be done to stop our schools falling further into disrepair

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The Britannia Leisure Centre in Hackney was rebuilt as part of a land asset deal that also saw Morgan Sindall provide a £44m new school

“It’s a buzz like no other,” says Richard Dobson, London area director at Morgan Sindall. What’s he talking about? The feeling that you get from handing over the keys to a new school to staff and students.

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“It is the best thing in the industry,” Dobson adds. “You can absolutely tell you are making a difference to the lives of those teachers and students, and you can absolutely feel it. You can see the energy it gives.”

The sad fact is, however, that Dobson is describing an experience that is in seriously short supply right now. According to a highly critical National Audit Office report from June last year, contracts for jobs under the government’s flagship school rebuilding programme were already coming forward at just a third of the expected rate even before the RAAC emergency hit in earnest late last summer, putting the Department for Education into full-scale crisis mode.

The NAO report exposed a situation where the department had been spending on average just a third of its “best practice” estimate of the money needed to keep schools in good condition, leaving a “significant gap” between the money available and that required to keep schools “safe and in a good condition”.

In the wake of the RAAC crisis, official statistics show that public capital spending on education has only fallen even more. Last year it ended at £3.5bn, half the level of 2010 and the lowest annual spend (inflation adjusted) since before Labour’s Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme started to ramp up 17 years ago.

With a general election looming as schools fall further into disrepair, what then are the chances that the next government will choose to plug that “significant” funding gap? And, with public sector finances in a parlous state, from where might the money be found?

Drop in the ocean

Labour has certainly looked to make political capital out of the poor condition of the 21,600 schools in the nation’s school estate. Shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson said last year that the spectacle of crumbling schools built from RAAC (reinforced aerated autoclaved concrete) – many of which would have been replaced under the cancelled BSF programme – was just one big “metaphor for 13 years of Tory government”.

Bridget Phillipson

Shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson said the deteriorating school estate was a metaphor for Tory rule

And there is little wonder that Labour has looked to take advantage. Last year’s NAO report found that 700,000 children were learning in schools which required major refurbs and which were seriously impacting their education. Meanwhile, 38% of school buildings are beyond their design life, with nearly one in six built before 1940.

The report warned starkly that schools had suffered years of underinvestment and were deteriorating, with some posing an “unacceptable” safety risk to students and staff. It also showed that, while the DfE’s assessment of the “best-practice level of annual capital funding”, contained in its 2020 spending review bid, was £7bn and that £5.3bn was its “recommended” funding to mitigate serious safety risks, the Treasury ultimately only allocated £3.1bn.

In addition, according to the NAO, the average spend in the five years to March 2023 was even less, at only £2.3bn – a third of the original “best practice” assessment.

>> See also: How do we fix England’s crumbling school estate?

>> See also: Scandal over RAAC school closures points to deeper malaise

The department, for its part, maintains that the total capital funding allocated to support the education sector in the 2021 spending review amounted to £19bn in the three years between 2022-23 and 2024-25 – just under £6.5bn per year – and that it prioritises the school buildings in the worst condition across England. 

The government’s main drive to tackle schools in the worst condition is the school rebuilding programme (SRP), under which it has promised to build 500 schools over a decade. However, while that figure may sound significant, it is a drop in the ocean next to the 64,000 buildings across 21,600 schools in the education estate.

Building at a rate of 50 schools a year, as the government has promised, would mean that existing schools could expect to be replaced once every 432 years. Steve Beechey, group public sector director at contractor Wates, says: “Back when the Education Funding Agency was in charge of capital spend, the rule of thumb used to be that we should be replacing around 300 to 400 schools every year just to keep pace with the crumbling estate.”


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Morgan Sindall London director Richard Dobson says the number of school projects hasn’t been as high as expected

As if the building plans were not already constrained enough, the problem has been made worse by difficulties spending the money that has been allocated given hellish levels of construction inflation. “Tricky” is how Wates’ Beechey describes the market, with many working in the sector testifying to the difficulties in getting schemes away after construction costs have risen sharply.

Morgan Sindall’s Dobson says the response in many cases has been to cancel projects when budgets are exceeded. “It has been difficult for the Department for Education, or any funder, to keep pace with the inflationary market.

“It can just mean that a school that people have spent six months designing and getting through planning then ultimately doesn’t progress beyond that stage. We’ve seen an increase in that.

“The number of schools coming through in the last few years has been down on previous programmes.”

The latest set of industry forecasts from the Construction Products Association (CPA) describes the SRP as “beleaguered”, with delivery “beset by problems due to fixed capital budgets and exceptional rates of cost inflation”, meaning that “programmes are running significantly behind schedule”.

The latest update from the government shows that just four schools have been completed under the SRP, which started in 2021, and as of last summer, 24 contracts had been awarded, compared with a forecast of 83 by that time.

The work is not coming forward at the rate expected, it’s not delivering at 50 schools a year

James Stone, Gleeds

Then into this situation has come the RAAC crisis. Officials at the DfE have not been given extra money to deal with RAAC-affected schools, so the issues are being picked up via existing programmes.

Following a wave of allocations at the start of February, 119 of the 235 RAAC-affected schools will now be rebuilt via the SRP, meaning that other schools in poor condition are likely to either miss out on funding altogether – or suffer serious delays.

James Stone, a director at consultant Gleeds, says: “The work is not coming forward at the rate expected, it’s not delivering at 50 a year. The SRP programme is highly complex because it’s work on existing sites,” he says, adding that the programme has also suffered as “other programmes like RAAC have refocused what’s needed”.


Architect HLM designed the Compass School for the London Borough of Havering

Catherine Ward, associate at architect HLM, which works on numerous school projects, says: “RAAC is now the focus at the department and understandably that is slowing things down. This has impacted on the current pipeline, and we now expect to see a reprioritisation of the future pipeline.”

Little wonder, then, that the volume of public-sector education work appears to be declining. Official statistics, which include work on colleges, show that output in 2023 fell 6% to £3.5bn, the lowest figure since 2007, with the workload 12% below the 2021 level.


Given this backdrop, there is widespread agreement in the sector about what should happen now. “Whoever is in government next, the focus on school condition should continue,” says Andrew Dutton, education sector leader at consultant Arcadis, “but the pace of delivery needs to increase.”

Likewise, Gleeds’ Stone says: “There’s obviously a need for more investment going forward, particularly in backlog maintenance.”

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Andrew Dutton, education sector leader at Arcadis, says the pace of investment needs to increase

The problem is that, while everyone wants more investment, there is little to indicate that it will be forthcoming. The Conservatives have so far remained silent on the issue of school condition, and what they might promise in their forthcoming manifesto.

However, the government said in autumn 2022 that it plans to freeze departmental capital budgets at their current level until at least 2028, effectively depreciating building spend year-on-year as inflation forces prices up.

And, while Labour, the clear bookmakers’ favourite to win the election, may have been keen to make political capital out of the sorry state of UK schools, so far it has avoided committing capital of its own. With the Institute for Fiscal Studies warning last week about the “poor” state of UK public finances – with taxes near 40-year highs and the national debt close to 100% of UK GDP – Labour leader Keir Starmer has almost entirely avoided expensive policy commitments.

Hence, many in the sector are assuming that, if any extra investment does come after the election, it will be modest. The CPA’s latest forecast predicts that public education construction output will increase by 1% this year and 4% next,  but “remain low relative to the long-term average”.

Arcadis’ Dutton says: “Labour’s not making any big promises, it’ll probably be business as usual. I can’t see them changing focus away from condition, but there may be a small uptick in funding.”


Cath Ward, associate at architect HLM, is hoping for an increase in funding if Labour is elected

HLM’s Ward says: “I expect we will see some change [if Labour is elected]. However, it is likely that we won’t see another Building Schools for the Future programme.”

Steve Beechey says: “How could either government fund a big increase? As a nation, we’re effectively broke.”

Show me the money

There are other options, however, that are keeping some in the sector hopeful that the market could return. Firstly, Andrew Dutton says the DfE is working hard to bring forward a new form of collaborative working with the industry on its schools projects, designed to avoid the problems that have plagued recent procurements in the SRP.

He says a planned “alliance for learning” framework i s being worked up to deliver the principles of Constructing the Gold Standard, the review by David Mosey of public sector construction frameworks. The idea is that this would encourage contractors to work together on larger pipelines of work, allowing them to invest and innovate with confidence.

“It’s about collaborating and sharing risk and reward. It’s one of the actions in place to increase the pace of delivery,” Dutton says.

>> Also read: DfE to bring forward new ‘alliancing’ framework for contractors

More fundamentally, the DfE’s school rebuilding programme is not, of course, the only funding route available for schools looking to undertake building works. As well as separate capital pots for free schools, primary schools, colleges and special educational needs schools, there are a variety of different funding routes for maintenance work, with some administered centrally and others by local authorities.

Beyond this, schools can use Section 106 planning agreements or land asset deals with developers to fund new buildings, or approach the government’s education land agency, LocatED, for help identifying a site. And beyond those options, of course, is always the spectre of private finance which, under the guise of PFI and PF2, delivered 173 schools with a capital value of more than £8.5bn over 20 years from 1998.

Former chancellor Philip Hammond banned the use of PF2 on new public projects in England in October 2018 following concerns over the financial burden it was placing on the public sector. However, supporters of the model point to the track record of delivering large numbers of buildings, and the fact that it is once again being used to fund projects in Wales, apparently successfully, under the mutual investment model – with a £500m fund set up for school projects by the Meridiam-backed Welsh Education Partnership Company.

Some are sceptical as to whether a form of PFI could ever find a way back, but Wates’ Beechey, who has given evidence to a Labour Party review of social infrastructure being run by shadow chief secretary to the Treasury Darren Jones, says the state of public finances means radical options must be considered.

“The question is whether there could be a role for private finance,” he says. “It won’t be PFI, but could we see a variation on a theme, if we create a new model that can better balance risk and reward for the public sector?”

Sweating the assets – using public land to fund new school construction

Back in 2018 the London Borough of Hackney faced both an urgent need to increase school places and a desire to replace outdated leisure facilities in what is a densely populated borough. It found a solution by taking the site of an old leisure centre next to Shoreditch Park, and using part of the land to self-develop both affordable and open-market sale housing.

Money from this then supported the funding of the borough’s new school and leisure projects on the remainder of the site.

It commissioned a £43.7m secondary school with sixth form, the London Academy Shoreditch Park, and the £53.8m redevelopment of Britannia Leisure Centre. By building high instead of spreading out, they were able to ensure that the footprint of the development area was matched to the original facilities – with the leisure centre boasting a football pitch on the roof (pictured below).

The school and leisure project were delivered by Morgan Sindall Construction last year via the Southern Construction Framework (SCF), with both buildings now open.

Richard Dobson, London area director for Morgan Sindall, said: “Looking at these alternative funding arrangements, and land deals, the issue is how we get everyone in this market really au fait with the skills and the knowledge to implement those solutions. Because it’s quite new and  innovative at the moment.

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The football pitch on the roof of the reveloped Britannia Leisure Centre

“If you get it right, [you can see] local politicians actually backing sustainable development – and taking the electoral reward that comes with that risk.”

Dobson at Morgan Sindall is keen on the whole range of routes, such as Section 106 and land asset deals – where schools are funded by the returns made by developing public land – and under which Morgan Sindall has delivered a £44m school and lesiure centre in Hackney (see box).

Shoreditch Academy

The £43.5m London Shoreditch Academy in Hackney

Dobson says: “We need to be sweating all those individual funding models in order to support an estates rebuilding programme.

“I think it’s unlikely the government will pick just one. But, yes, I think private funding model has to feature somewhere.”

Without the government and clients being willing to risk a new way forward on school-building funding, however, it seems unlikely that the much hoped-for pick-up in school building work will happen. And Dobson will continue to miss out on that new-school buzz as a result.


Election focus 

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As thoughts turn towards the next general election, the UK is facing some serious problems.

Low growth, flatlining productivity, question marks over net zero funding and capability, skills shortages and a worsening housing crisis all amount to a daunting in-tray for the next government.

This year’s general election therefore has very high stakes for the built environment and the economy as a whole. For this reason,

Building is launching its most in-depth election coverage yet, helping the industry to understand the issues in play and helping to amplify construction’s voice so that the government hears it loud and clear.

We kick off this month with a three-parter looking at the state of play across three key topic areas.

Building is investigating the funding gaps facing the next government’s public sector building programmes, looking at the policy options available to the political parties. 

In the coming months our Building Talks podcast will focus on perhaps the hottest political topic: the housing crisis. The podcast will feature interviews with top industry names who side-step soundbites in favour of in-depth discussions.

As the main parties ramp up their policy announcements, we will keep you up to date with their latest pledges on our website through our “policy tracker”.

Click here for more