The government has £5bn to spend on its city academies programme over the next four years, but it’s finding it strangely difficult to get the construction industry to take its money … Eleanor Cochrane looks at what’s going wrong while Martin Spring considers the architecture

it was March 2000 when David Blunkett, in his incarnation as secretary of state for education, fathered the city academy. They would, he said, provide a “radical new approach” to education. More specifically, they would “promote greater diversity and break the cycle of failing schools in inner cities”. And since their birth they have barely been out of the headlines – for all the wrong reasons.

Critics have alleged that academies receive more funding than other schools, that they favour the middle classes, are failing to raise educational standards, don’t employ qualified teachers and enable millionaire businessmen to get cranky ideas onto the curriculum, such as creationism. On top of that, some councils have complained that the Department for Education and Skills has used unfair tactics to foist academies on them.

The government’s response to all this has been to press on with the academies under cover of a “myth-busting document” that explains why the press has got it wrong. In September, prime minister Tony Blair reaffirmed that academies remained the centrepiece of the government’s education policy. That means a £5bn programme to have 40 of them up and running within a year, and 200 in place by 2010.

As a large number of these academies will be new-build, that should be good news for construction. However, where the academy programme goes, controversy follows, and that applies to their procurement. For one thing, it is not clear that the contracting sector has the capacity to fulfil Blair’s ambition. “There have been instances where academy tenders have not attracted the right number of contractors,” says Stephen Jones, customer director for Taylor Woodrow, which is involved in several city academy projects. “The difficulty is that there’s obviously a lot of them to be done between now and 2010.” And if there are not enough contractors coming forward, the government may miss its own target.

City of London Academy, Southwark

City of London Academy, Southwark

Signs of concern

Outwardly the government is not expressing any anxiety about this. A spokesperson from the Department for Education and Skills said the government “does not have any concerns about its capacity to deliver 200 academies by 2010”. The industry is not so sure. Ian Smith, pre-construction manager at Willmott Dixon’s construction division, says: “The academies department in the DfES is concerned that some of the larger contractors are just not interested in the academies programme, and they thought they would be.”

The reason for this concern is twofold. First, there is a glut of work. After 2008, the London Olympics will tie up a large amount of construction capacity in the capital, which is where 60 of the 200 academies will be located. Then there is Building Schools for the Future, the government’s programme to rebuild or refurbish every single secondary school in England over the next 15 years through public-private local education partnerships. This gargantuan undertaking will require a vast amount of resources.

The second reason for contractors’ reticence is the high bidding costs involved. Tenders for each project are announced separately in the European Union’s Official Journal, and contractors are chosen through a single-stage competitive tendering process. “It’s a costly process to go through, and there’s no guarantee that you’ll even prequalify, let alone get the actual project,” says Taywood’s Jones. “So each of the contractors will select academies on the basis that they know the area or the client.” This inevitably means that some academies do not attract the right number of bids – and conversely it can mean that a particularly successful contractor that has won more academies than it expected is forced to pull out of some of them.

As a result of this, firms such as Taywood, EC Harris and Davis Langdon have been lobbying the government to set up a framework of prequalified contractors. The argument is that whereas consultants are appointed at the beginning of an academy’s 18-month design phase, the contractor is not picked until the end of this stage. “If there were a framework in the same way as there is for architects and engineers and so on, then you could reasonably share out the workload,” says Jones. He adds that this would also mean contractors would need go through the Official Journal process only once, clients would have more certainty, and the contractor would be able to advise on buildability and value engineering at an earlier stage.

One sponsor, the Oasis Trust, has taken matters into its own hands and is in the process of putting together its own contractor framework. So far, the government has refused to follow suit – and not everyone thinks that it should. Stephen Jenkins, director of education at project manager Buro Four, which is working on 10 academies, says he finds it difficult to see the reason for using a national framework for contractors. He says. “Construction costs can vary so widely across the country that it makes more sense to employ them on a project-by-project basis.”

Going it alone

It is a different story for consultants. The government has three frameworks in place for them, and they are due to run until the end of 2007. One covers the design team and includes architects, engineers and quantity surveyors; the other two are for construction project managers and “overall project managers”,

a category that includes education specialists such as 3Es and Cambridge Education, as well as industry firms such as Building Design Partnership and Turner & Townsend.

As you might expect with the academy programme, the picture is more complex than this. Some multiple sponsors, such as ARK, the United Learning Trust and Reg Vardy, have set up their own consultant frameworks. Paul Foster, head of the education sector at EC Harris, says that United Learning Trust has a prequalification system for consultants, and Reg Vardy operates a single combined framework that includes EC Education, engineer Buro Happold and architect Watkins Grey.

The government’s official line is that only ARK and United Learning Trust have their own frameworks, and that other sponsors wishing to use firms that are not on its lists must pay the costs themselves – but in practice this would not always seem to be the case. “Each sponsor has its own relationship with the DfES and there are myriad relationships and structures,” says Foster. “It’s a fast-moving programme and relationships change. The ‘mature’ sponsors will have OJECed their frameworks so they will have gone through a similar process to the DfES. As long as they don’t simply use their pet architect but have established their own criteria and found firms that can work with that, then it’s fine.”

The City of London Corporation, whose City of London Academy in Southwark opened in September last year, is another example of a client going its own way. The client put the academy out to competitive tender but invited collaborative submissions from teams made up of architect, contractor, M&E engineer and structural engineer. “Because the corporation is an educated client, when it comes to building projects it wanted to take control itself,” says Willmott Dixon’s Smith, whose team of Studio E Architects, Max Fordham and Dewhurst Macfarlane and Partners won the contract. “Normally the corporation opts for design-and-build or traditional contracts, but they’ve had a lot of problems in the past with the outturn costs being bigger than the tendered figures. So they chose partnering – and then PPC2000. They wanted a team ethos across the project.” The corporation is sponsoring another two academies in Hackney and Islington and is going down the same procurement route: the Willmott Dixon team has submitted tenders and is hoping that the corporation will use the same team.

This would not only be good news for the team members, it could also be good news for the future pupils of this academy.

One of the criticisms of the project-by-project way in which most construction teams are put together is that it prevents the formations of experienced teams.

The DfES does have a group of architects and design experts to tackle this issue but many in the industry feel that it is not acting fast, or effectively, enough. “The thing about the academies process is that all the lessons learned are not being shared,” says Taywood’s Jones. And Smith agrees. He says that the DfES is being so slow that the City of London Academy team has already initiated its own customer satisfaction survey, which involves questioning the heads of department at the end of each term to identify problems. “The intention is that if we win further academies we’ll use that learning and make sure that we don’t make the same mistake twice. Inevitably there will be something in the schools that doesn’t work as we intended.”

This is an area in which Building Schools for the Future would seem to have an advantage over the academies. Mike Skilton, director of Architecture PLB, which works on both schools programmes, says: “One of the goals of the BSF programme is that by having a constant partner you have your provider tied in – so as the process moves on from school to school, amendments can be made based on the feedback.” This may be one of the reasons that the government is considering how to align the two – as well as the fact that running two programmes to improve and modernise the country’s schools, each with different funding and operating structures, is inherently confusing.

Djanogly Academy, Nottingham

Djanogly Academy, Nottingham

Two into one

So far, the government has maintained a sphinx-like silence as to how the two could be integrated. Under the BSF structure, schools are grouped by area and run by Local Education Partnerships using a modified PFI system – a structure largely cribbed from the health service’s LIFT programme. By contrast, the academies programme is funded straight from central government with the addition of £2m of sponsor money. It is not clear how the two could be combined. “We would prefer the academies to sit outside the BSF programme,” says Willmott Dixon’s Smith. “If you combine the two funding streams I just don’t think you’d get the sponsor involvement because BSF is in effect PFI and the people investing in PFI are not interested in the same way in the governance of the school; they are interested in the financial return they can get.”

The industry seems to be fairly split on whether the two could be conjoined. EC Harris’ Foster believes that the ideological difference between the companies involved in BSF and the academy sponsors could be ameliorated by using sponsor contributions to aid the running of the school, rather than its building. “Sponsors are signed up to deliver educational change, so it makes sense if their money is linked to the running of the school, not building it.”

Architecture PLB’s Skilton believes that it makes sense to combine the two programmes, although he points out that it is not only the ideologies of the involved parties that are fundamentally different, it is also the philosophy behind each programme. “Academies are quite specific bespoke solutions to an immediate problem – failing schools that need to be turned around straight away. This is quite different from the BSF programme; it has the future in mind, whereas academies have the present in mind.”

Whichever way the government turns, it looks likely to create more controversy. The National Union of Teachers, the largest teaching union, is against academies in principle and has been campaigning to defeat their establishment in individual areas – with some success. Attempts to turn schools in Doncaster and Waltham Forest into academies have been defeated for the time being – despite the fact that the Waltham Forest candidate was sponsored by designer Jasper Conran. And many local authorities have set themselves against the idea.

However, the government is fighting back – by using what some would call questionable tactics. Despite opposition from a Liberal Democrat council, Newcastle is to get an academy in the notorious west end of the city. Greg Stone, Newcastle council’s Lib Dem executive member for regeneration, says: “Civil servants put a lot of pressure on the council, saying that if you don’t put forward a bid for an academy, we won’t grant your funding for the BSF programme, which was in the region of £200m.” After the council had conceded, Stone feels that the government’s approach remained unnecessarily dictatorial. “My opinion is that they’ve been quite overbearing in the way they’ve dealt with this – they haven’t really taken on board local concerns. When we agreed we’d have to do this we wanted to consult local people on three possible sites for the school and at the last minute the government said ‘you will not consult on three, you will have it on this site’.”

Officially, the government has denied that it is coercing non-compliant councils into taking on academies. A DfES spokesperson said of the government’s stance: “To qualify for BSF money, councils have to demonstrate that they’ve considered the option of an academy as part of their bid for money. Proposals that include academies are further ahead in the allocation queue, as BSF waves are ordered by need for the money and deprivation.”

However, there is no doubt that the pressure is on to meet its 2012 target – and with Blair staking his legacy on the success of his education policy, it is unlikely to be allowed to slip. From the industry’s point of view this means that the work will keep rolling in. But it also means that it is going to be under severe pressure from the government to do its bit – whatever the papers say.

City of London Academy, Southwark

Recent city academies exemplify the advantages of involving top design teams in the development programme, particularly when it comes to natural daylighting and ventilation – neither of which features strongly in PFI schools. The City of London Academy in Southwark, south London (pictured on this page and opposite), raises another common theme – tight inner-city sites. In this case Studio E Architects had to shoehorn 60 classrooms into a sliver of land alongside a railway line. Its solution was to build four parallel slab blocks four storeys high and to link them with a five-storey atrium. The contractor was Willmott Dixon, the services engineer was Max Fordham Partnership and the structural engineer was Dewhurst Macfarlane and Partners.

What are city academies?

City academies are publicly funded secondary schools that are run independently of the local authorities in which they are located. Their most unique feature is that private sponsors donate a maximum of £2m towards the schools in return for a large degree of control over their
ethos – from their name and building design through to staff and curriculum. The academies, not all of which are new-build, were
originally intended to replace existing failing schools in urban areas, but they have now been extended to cover rural areas as well. Lord Andrew Adonis, parliamentary undersecretary of state for schools, is credited as being a principal architect of the programme. The first academies, including the Foster-designed Business Academy in Bexley, south-east London, opened in 2002; 27 more have since opened and a much larger number are in development. The government’s £5bn development programme will put 200 academies in place by 2010.

Djanogly Academy, Nottingham

For this school, Foster and Partners was offered a benign site that stretches alongside the mature parkland of Forest Recreation Ground. This gave the architect full scope for its trademark lightweight, generously glazed built forms. An elongated two-storey block of classrooms is arranged around a double-height corridor, while wide brises-soleil shade continuous strip windows overlooking the parkland. As the school specialises in information and communication technologies, computers are extensively used and the extra heat gain is dissipated by chilled beams in the upper classrooms. Sponsored by Sir Harry Djanogly, it was built by Sol Construction, with Buro Happold as structural and services engineer and Davis Langdon as QS.

Brunel Academy, west London

The latest generation of city academy projects in the pipeline show a more radical, ambitious approach to design, with several arranged around ambitious atriums. For the 800-pupil Brunel Gateway Academy in Uxbridge, west London, Aedas Architects has designed an £18m five-storey building around a polygonal atrium traversed by footbridges on two levels. Externally, the building is conceived as a gateway to Brunel University, one of two sponsors along with HSBC Education Trust.

Bridge Academy, east London

For the Bridge Academy, architect and engineer Building Design Partnership plans to squeeze 1150 pupils onto a small canalside site in Hackney, east London. As in BDP’s 2004 exemplar design for the Building Schools for the Future programme, the six-storey building embraces an all-weather amphitheatre on the third floor enclosed behind transparent ETFE cushions. UBS Investment Bank is the sponsor and Buro Happold is the services and structural engineer.

Magdalene Academy, north London

And for the “all-through” St Mary Magdalene Academy in Islington, north London, architect Feilden Clegg Bradley and engineer Buro Happold plan to fit 1360 pupils ranging from pre-school infants to sixth-formers into an interconnected sequence of buildings. In the largest block, an atrium encloses a three-storey pod containing a library on the lower two floors with a prayer and music room above. The Church of England is the sponsor and Mace Plus awaits confirmation as contractor.

Who are the sponsors?

The government has about 100 sponsors for current, upcoming and potential academies, including some from the industry: Amey sponsors Unity City Academy in Middlesbrough, which opened in 2002.

Several groups are sponsoring more than one academy:

  • Absolute Return for Kids: ARK is a charity set up by Arpad Busson, a millionaire who made his money investing in hedge funds and who is the former partner of model Elle Macpherson. It has plans to sponsor seven academies in London.
  • United Learning Trust: A subsidiary of the United Church Schools Trust, it is involved with six academies and aims to sponsor 11 in all.
  • The Emmanuel Schools’ Foundation: The charitable organisation of the Reg Vardy car dealership group, run by Christian businessman and philanthropist Sir Peter Vardy and based in north-east England. Its schools have a strong Christian ethos.
  • Oasis Trust: Set up in 1985 by businessman Steve Chalke, this is another Christian charity. It is sponsoring three academies – the Oasis Academy Enfield, north London, and two in Grimsby, Lincolnshire.