Flagship school policy struggles with first test as projects deemed too complex for 2011 completion

Some of the government’s first free schools may have to open in temporary buildings as time runs out to prepare permanent classrooms.

The free schools policy is intended to encourage parent and teacher groups to found and run their own schools. Sixteen proposals have been approved in the first wave, which are due to open in September 2011.

The 16 projects are a mix of conversions and new build, but advisers working on the programme believe the “physical process” of creating some of the schools will be too challenging to be completed in the time allowed.

It is understood that officials are preparing to approach contractors over the possibility of using temporary prefabricated classrooms to house pupils while the schools are prepared. Other groups may be able to use space at existing school.

The news comes amid criticism that the free school programme has been pushed through before details of the policy have been worked out.

The government has asked delivery agency Partnerships for Schools (PfS) to help groups with the commissioning of building work, but it is unclear how services will be procured.

Consultants on the academies project management framework, which was recently extended until April 2011, say they have been waiting for weeks to hear if it will be used for free schools.

A spokesperson for the Department for Education said: “It is up to each proposer to look into possible sites. We will work with PfS to ensure that proposers are supported in finding appropriate sites and buildings.”

The news came in a week of turmoil for the government’s policies on school building, as four councils began legal challenges to the decision to halt the £55bn Building Schools for the Future programme in July.

Nottingham, Luton, Waltham Forest and Sandwell councils have applied for permission to seek a judicial review of the government’s decision to stop more than 700 schools projects.
The councils argue that the 1 January date used as a cut off point for funding was arbitrary. If they are successful, the whole list of stopped projects would need to be reviewed. Rupert Choat, a partner in Cameron McKenna, said: “If a court does set aside the decision, a new way of determining the future of schemes has to be produced, but it doesn’t necessarily mean schemes will be saved.”

Meanwhile, Sir Robert McAlpine and Wates have been shortlisted for the £10.5m Campsmount school project in Doncaster that will test fast-track procurement.

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