Ministers push back contracts on Priority Schools Building Programme, delaying construction till 2013

Major delays to the government’s flagship £2bn school building programme have forced ministers to put back the launch of the contracts by at least six months, with construction on new schools now unlikely to begin until well into 2013.

The fresh delay to the £2bn Priority Schools Building Programme (PSPB), which was set up in place of the previous government’s £55bn Building Schools for the Future programme, scrapped by ministers in 2010, comes after Building revealed last month that the timetable had begun slipping.

A list of the first wave of schools to be included in the programme was initially earmarked for December 2011, with contracts expected to be put to market this April.
However, with the industry and schools still waiting to learn which schools are to be included, Building understands that delivery agency Partnership for Schools (PfS) has now briefed contractors that tendering for the work will not begin until “late summer”, with contractors told this meant September.

“We were told that’s their best guess. It doesn’t mean it won’t go back further,” one contractor said.

It’s another blow for construction which has seen plans delayed three times now

Stephen Twigg, shadow minister

It is understood that the delay to the PSPB is partly due to the volume of bids, with the programme three times oversubscribed. This has been exacerbated by an initial “light touch” method used to assess schools for inclusion, which prompted a review of all bids.

A Department for Education (DfE) spokesperson confirmed PfS was reviewing the applications, but would not comment on the fresh delay.

Stephen Twigg, Labour’s shadow education secretary, said the PSBP “appears to be in chaos”. “It’s another blow to the construction industry, which has seen these plans delayed three times now,” he said.

“The government should bring forward investment projects like new school buildings that will also create building jobs,” he said.

The delay came as DfE confirmed plans to relax space standards for schools, with a reduction of the overall gross area averaging 15% in secondary schools and 5% in primary schools for the entire school build.

A DfE spokesperson said the move meant the average size of classrooms “might be reduced by around 5% in secondary schools”, but she said area reductions could be achieved by reducing non-teaching areas such as corridors and omitting separate ICT spaces.

But Caroline Buckingham, head of education at HLM architects, said that this was already being done and the new standards would mean teaching spaces would be “squeezed even further”. “There will be no breathing space,” she said.

For more on the reduction in space standards, see Building’s story here.

And for an analysis of how the free schools agenda is driving down school building standards, see here.