The schools standards minister comes across as a sixth-form debating champion – but can he convince regional contractors to play a leading role in his plan to revamp the UK's secondary schools?
"He's got a brain the size of a small planet," says one civil servant of David Miliband, the schools standards minister charged with running the £2bn-a-year secondary schools refurbishment programme. On closer inspection, the astro-cerebral phenomenon that is Miliband's brain turns out to be encased in a slender skull at the top of the tall, spindly frame of a teenage-looking 37-year-old.

In fact, the bespectacled Miliband comes across every inch the lanky, slightly geeky, sixth-form debater. This is only accentuated by a brash intellectual self-confidence that allows him to describe his Building Schools for the Future document – the blueprint for Labour's schools revamp – as "provocative, challenging, insightful and intelligent" without a hint of embarrassment. Miliband is enthusiastic about everything he talks about: a bright yellow banner in his office reads "This is a positive thinking area".

Building Schools for the Future is, if nothing else, ambitious. But then so is its author, who was fast-tracked to the level of minister less than a year after entering the House of Commons at the 2001 general election. Miliband wants every single secondary schools in the UK to be revamped by 2020. Having previously worked for Gordon Brown, he has managed to secure £2.2bn from the Treasury for the programme in 2005/6 alone, and has also received the public support of Number 10.

The document is now out for consultation, with responses expected by the end of the month. Department for Education & Skills officials have met with the construction and architecture fraternities in the past few months to discuss how to implement these ambitions.

One constraint on the programme – the skills shortage in the construction industry – seems to have passed Miliband by. Asked what effect the shortage will have on delivering his promises, he replies in idealistic rather than specific terms: "It's a big opportunity to think how public procurement can enable a serious assault on skills."

Despite the somewhat vacuous nature of those words, it is possible that the minister has found a way to sidestep the skills shortage. Following our meeting, a Whitehall source tells Building that the government hopes to encourage project managers or education companies to head the refurbishment consortiums, rather than the big construction firms. It is thought that they will attract the regional contractors that would not normally consider themselves to be consortium leading material. If these firms could be brought on board, they would deliver their workforces.

He describes his blueprint for Labour’s schools revamp as ‘provocative, insightful and intelligent’ – without a hint of embarrassment

As well as using regional contractors to get at the last scrapings of the industry's resources, the government is hoping to capitalise on their knowledge of their local markets. Local education authorities should to take advantage of this by bundling work on a number of schools across a region. This is an idea borrowed from the Department of Health's LIFT programme to upgrade GP surgeries and neighbourhood clinics. Miliband argues that it will help to replace the idea that refurbishment is "just looking at an individual school's leaky roof" with a more strategic assessment of the common classroom needs of children in a local authority area.

Perhaps the surprise here is the key role to be played by LEAs – just last month, education secretary Charles Clarke accused them of mishandling £500m of public money. Miliband slightly downplays their responsibilities, insisting that the interplay between national government and local authorities will be the key to delivery. In fact, the relationship Miliband describes smacks of Whitehall's continued distrust of the ability of local authorities to do things for themselves: "Lots of LEAs would say they want more support for procurement. That's why we have floated the idea of a national joint-venture procurement body to support local authorities."

Although the policy-heavy topic of procurement might seem an obvious attraction to a man of Miliband's intelligence and intensity, it seems to be the more aesthetic realm of architecture that fascinates him. "I always found that I was more inspired to learn at school in new classrooms than dilapidated ones," he recalls, somewhat conveniently. "We're asking architects to come up with six exemplar designs [for the programme]. We're asking them to not come up with anything too wacky, but to think of what students need."

Miliband tries to cement this impression by suggesting he has a strong relationship with architecture watchdog CABE. He points out that CABE commissioner Richard Feilden is designing a replacement for the school that Miliband attended as a teenager in Camden, north London. Unfortunately, this hint loses its impact when it later becomes clear that he thinks Feilden is the head of CABE.

Personal effects

Where do you go on holiday? I usually go to Europe, or the UK for that matter. I went to south-west Spain for Easter. You and your brother Ed, who is now at Harvard, have often been described as the brains behind new Labour. Do you have any more siblings? No. I think two is plenty! Rumour has it that you have a 20-year career plan, which ends up with you being prime minister. Is this true? Well, I think that five-year plans went out with Stalin, so there’s no way I’d look at a 20-year plan. Your father was quite famous. Who was he and what did he do? Professor Ralph Miliband – he was a historian [his celebrated works include The Capitalist Society and Marxism & Politics].