So says the assistant headteacher of this school in Bradford, which was meant to show what the government’s flagship school building programme will do for Britain’s children. Instead, it’s more evidence of how it’s failing them.

John Petrie knows better than most that the government’s schoolbuilding programme isn’t working. He is assistant headteacher at Tong school in southern Bradford and he’s been involved with the £45bn Building Schools for the Future initiative since November 2002. Tong’s 1,450 pupils were supposed to move into shiny new premises in September, but Bradford’s £400m deal has yet to reach financial close after nearly a year of contract wrangles with Integrated Bradford, an Amey-led consortium. Now the expected completion date has been put back to September 2008.

Petrie is fed up. “It’s ridiculous. The actual design work was exciting, but when it comes to the lawyers and institutions getting involved it becomes tedious. It’s a fantastic idea – let’s improve all the schools – but it’s become a building and procurement exercise rather than an educational exercise. It’s a marvellous thing to do, but it’s a stupid way to do it.”

Petrie’s is one voice in a chorus of complaints about BSF. It was launched in 2004 with the aim of building or refurbishing 3,500 schools by 2019; to hit this target, £3bn of work has to be commissioned every year for 15 years. BSF is now in its third year, but only one deal has reached financial close: a £173m scheme in Bristol.

According to a Construction Products Association report released next week, the scheme is falling far behind its target of building 350 schools by April 2008. By July this year, 30 authorities had identified 338 new schools for development, but only eight had appointed preferred bidders. “The intention is good but there’s a gap between the intention and what’s happening on the ground,” says CPA spokesman Simon Storer. “There’s a lot of catching up to be done.”

What’s going wrong

Last week, Building revealed that the Department for Education and Skills has asked consultant Pricewaterhouse Coopers to conduct a six-month review into BSF. Petrie could give the PwC team some ideas on where to start. He says the process is badly managed and that the local authority clients are under-resourced. “There’s a lack of capacity within councils and there’s a lack of continuity all over the place – within the council, within the DfES, with one part not knowing what the other’s doing.

“Consortiums are not greater than the sum of their parts – the parts don’t work together. You might get the IT part not talking to the facilities management part or the builder.”

It’s not all bad news. BSF schemes at Sheffield and Greenwich, south London, are well-regarded and nearing financial close, and there’s a sense that things are finally beginning to happen. Councils, schools and contractors praise the aims of the programme, which links educational objectives with the provision of buildings and technology. Like Sheffield, Greenwich and Bristol – where the first school will open in September 2007 – Bradford is a pathfinder, and could therefore have been expected to suffer from teething troubles. But as the successive waves of BSF projects roll in, there are echoes of the criticisms of Bradford across the country.

‘The PFI on heat’

One exasperated contractor describes the intense procurement process as “PFI on heat”, but it can also be cumbersome to the point of stasis. Chris Gilmore, who runs HGB’s education programme, sums up the contractors’ view: “We’re keen on BSF; it’s a huge chunk of work. But bidding is tortuous and extremely expensive. We spent £1.5m on the Bristol bid and came third. We need to have a 50% success rate otherwise it’s far, far too expensive.”

BSF is an even more complex process than PFI, mainly owing to the bolting-on of a “local education partnership” (LEP) to manage the building programme in each area. This is a special-purpose company set up by the local authority and the winning consortium. None has been set up so far, however, and there are wild variations between authorities’ interpretations of their size and make-up, the scope of their responsibility and whether they include non-construction elements such as IT and facilities management.

Procurement is tough on councils, too. Even before a notice can be published in the EU’s Official Journal, each council must have had an education vision, and worked out separate strategic and outline business cases that have all been signed off by the DfES.

Once negotiations with suppliers begin, there are standard documents, but they almost inevitably require modification, which is proving to be a lengthy process of to-ing and fro-ing with Partnerships for Schools (PfS), the government body appointed by DfES to run the programme. As one jaded contractor remarks: “Just because there are standard documents, it doesn’t mean the bidders will be comfortable with them.”

Stan Johnson is joint project director at the £142m South Tyneside and Gateshead BSF project (STaG). This scheme is in the process of whittling a longlist of consortiums down to three. “It’s good to have a set of documents that are more or less ready, but councils may have difficulty adapting them,” he says. Because STaG is a joint project, he adds, the documents needed a fair bit of alteration. “This has been a challenge, especially with proposed derogations, which meant lengthy discussions with Partnerships for Schools before they’d sign them off.”

One of the biggest problems with BSF is the capacity of the local authorities to manage such a process. STaG is one of the better resourced projects, with a designated team and administrative support, but Johnson has carried out peer reviews on other authorities and says few have the same capacity.

The first BSF projects were nurtured by PfS and legions of external advisers, but there are questions over how much support PfS will be able to offer by the time it gets to the wave-three projects that are just beginning.

“All of the bidding team are highly qualified,” says HBG’s Gilmore, “but in the local authority you have people who are not experienced enough to negotiate or manage a programme of this size. They have a number of external advisers but the amount of help that they need is enormous.”

There’s a lack of capacity and a lack of continuity all over the place, within the council, within the DfES, with one part not knowing what the other’s doing

John Petrie, Tong school, Bradford

At Bradford, Petrie criticises the council’s reliance on consultants. “There are lots of good people and obviously because we’re a pathfinder they can say we haven’t got the experience. But what Bradford hasn’t done is train people so they can manage building for the next 10 or 15 years.”

‘Ridiculously wasteful’

One of the greatest burdens on all parties involved in BSF is its gruelling design process. Three consortiums are shortlisted for each project and each must produce detailed designs for three or four schools. Critics of the system say it is confusing for the schools themselves, which must work with three sets of companies, and that the 12-week competitive design period is too short.

Peter Clegg of architect Feilden Clegg Bradley was part of an unsuccessful bid for the Bristol BSF. He says he was left with little enthusiasm for the programme. “It’s ridiculously wasteful, and it’s also confusing and rapid. You’re taking a normal design process of five or six months and contracting it into half of that.

“Putting clients and design teams in a competitive situation is confusing for clients and frustrating for design teams. It doesn’t allow the establishment of client-designer relationships.”

Clegg adds that little of the work can be used on other schemes because it is targeted to the criteria of the bid. To add insult to injury, the design only carried 8% of the weight in the rigid decision-making process. By comparison, the management of the consortium was worth 20% and IT 15%.

Eleven exemplar designs for schools were commissioned by DfES at the start of the programme, but schools are using these as a benchmark of quality, rather than sample designs that could be adapted. Chris Liddle, chair of HLM Architects, which is part of a consortium in negotiation with the £160m Sheffield BSF, believes they may have raised expectations too high. “With the exemplar schools, it was about transforming education and every child matters, but they’ve raised expectations beyond the finance available.”

There are also complaints that the budgets set by DfES do not take into account site variations or remediation work. “The benchmarks are just too tight,” says one senior consultant involved. “It’s going to be extremely hard to do anything of any quality.

“The government looked at the amount of cash, worked out what schemes would cost and realised they couldn’t roll them all out. But rather than saying, ‘We’ll just do 80%’, they went ahead using the same money.” Worst affected will be schools specialising in sports or science – both require expensive facilities.

Despite all its problems, the scale of government investment in BSF makes it a must-bid programme for contractors. All expressed their commitment, but stressed that at £2m a throw, tenders would be carefully targeted. Most could not envisage going for more than two a year, which could mean the later waves of BSF struggle to attract bidders. Some already are – only two companies turned up to a recent market presentation by Westminster council.

Contractors point out that councils have little idea of the commercial drivers and don’t know how to make schemes attractive to the market. In some cases, this is motivated by political distaste – many schools are not keen on privatising services such as caretaking or grounds maintenance that make contracts more appealing.

One of the most appealing projects is STaG, which includes a healthy amount of PFI, rather than just design and build, and potentially some health work for the primary care trust. Councils that offer little PFI, such as Westminster or Haringey in north London, are struggling to attract interest in a low-paying design-and-build contract, with the added penalty of having to help to pay the £500,000 a year cost to run the LEP.

Competition will be exacerbated as the £1.6bn academies framework will be procured under the same system. It may struggle even more, though. While BSF offers the carrot of perhaps 20 schools a project, academies are one-off buildings.

A DfES spokesperson said the BSF process was standardised through the “LEP model and contractual documents and a strategic approach to school estate planning in order to prevent 150 local authorities being burdened with the bureaucratic process of 3,500 individual school procurements”.

There is, however, still much to haggle over for the preferred bidders and their clients before more schemes can reach financial close. None of them will be surprised if the PwC report concludes that Building Schools for the Future is just too expensive for both the private and public sectors.

And as Paul Foster, head of education at EC Harris, points out, it is the schools that end up footing the bill. “Some of the figures I hear make my eyes water. What people forget is that the cost of the unsuccessful bids doesn’t disappear; the public sector pays it to the successful bidder at financial close, and most of them factor in a one-in-three success rate. If it costs £2m, 10 of those and you could build another school.”