A further three-month consultation is to be launched

The government has stopped short of endorsing proposals to procure almost all major schools contracts through a powerful central procurement body in its response to the James Review into future school building.

The government said on Tuesday that it would launch a further three-month consultation on two key aspects of James’ proposed reforms: the proposals for a more centralised procurement process and the best model for allocating and prioritising funds.

Despite education secretary Michael Gove saying that the government “was accepting the majority” of James’ recommendations subject to a “thorough consultation process over the coming months”, the move means that the department has left the door open to using local or regional delivery mechanisms for schools contracts more widely than envisaged by James, who recommended that all but the smallest contracts should be procured by a central body. The move will also mean a further delay before a coherent school building programme can be implemented.

In its consultation document, the department states: “There are clear potential efficiency benefits from using a more centralised approach for procurement and building project delivery, and overall we wish to move in this direction. However, we do not intend to over-ride existing local or regional procurement and project delivery arrangements where they are shown to be as efficient and effective at building or improving schools to a high standard …We want to consult on all these issues further.”

Gove said that he would push ahead “more quickly” with other reforms suggested by James, including launching a programme of data collection on building condition, introducing standardised designs for schools and simplifying regulations around school premises. The detail of how the department will do these is still to be finalised.

Industry figures welcomed the fact that the government had responded to the review, but urged officials to provide further clarity on the programme’s future as swiftly as possible.

Darren Talbot, head of schools project management at Davis Langdon, an Aecom company, said: “It will be interesting to see what tweaks they do to the PFI model, particularly after looking at how costs and time have been slimmed down on the academies framework.”

What the announcements mean for …

The government has signalled its intentions to move towards standardised school buildings, with Gove saying he wishes to develop a “suite of standardised drawings and specifications.” PfS guidance says that PFI schools will also be built to standardised designs. It is unclear whether the government will launch a design competition or seek to use existing solutions.

Officials say they have “not determined the approach” but “want to learn from designs that exist.”

School building regulations
Gove said that school building regulations would be “pared down significantly, cutting red tape and cost”. A consultation on simplifying regulations will be launched in the autumn, but it is likely the government will push to finalise this as soon as possible to maximise savings from projects already earmarked for funding. Work is under way to reduce space standards by at least 15%.

Total school building funding 2011-14
The PFI school building programme will only be paid for by the government once the buildings are occupied. As the first group is scheduled to be open in 2014-15, only a small amount of the costs will be borne by government in this spending review period, meaning the bulk of the £2bn construction programme is in addition to the £15.9bn capital spending allocation in last year’s Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR). The £500m announced for this financial year to address the shortage of school places is coming from money saved on BSF schemes that were given the go-ahead last year but told to make savings of up to 40%, and so falls within the CSR allocations.

The six BSF schemes that went to court
A judicial review hearing in February ruled that the government must reconsider the future of six BSF schemes after the councils involved successfully argued that they had not been adequately consulted on the decision to scrap their programmes. Gove said this week that the government would cover the “contractual liabilities” incurred by the councils, but that the schemes would not be reinstated. Schools can appeal, but success is unlikely.

The councils are allowed to appeal, but after Gove’s statement it looks highly unlikely that they will be successful.