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Baby boom puts new schools back on the agenda

Source: Public Sector Executive Mar/Apr 12

Matt Pennell, ex-editor of Building Schools Journal and conference programmer for the Building Future Education event, discusses funding for new schools.

No-one working in local government has had it easy in the past two years, but officers responsible for school building projects really deserved your pity.

Capital budgets were cut by 60% in 2010 and headcounts in departments often dropped by more than this. Since the start of last year there has been a steady stream of funding announcements for school buildings, culminating in a flurry of new money directed down several channels in England, Scotland and Wales last autumn.

While this leaves the sector short of a high water mark of £9bn achieved in 2009- 10, school building activity is still at a historically high level.

If you follow the mainstream print media closely it would seem that this funding revival is passing local government by. All the headlines are about new types of autonomous schools – Free Schools, UTCs, Studio Schools and Academies.

While these are all newsworthy, a little perspective is needed. Even with the breakneck conversion of Academies, around 90% of state schools remain in local authority control. While significant money is being channelled towards the new types of schools, Partnerships for Schools has stated that legacy Building Schools for the Future (BSF) projects still make up a majority of its budget. Furthermore, something that is very much kept under the radar, local authorities can theoretically still have a close relationship with these schools as a supplier of services. Academies and Free Schools could tap into council knowledge, expertise and integrity, if they tire of the sharp practices employed by certain outsourcers.

Last year a new funding stream opened up that will prove significant to local government – Basic Need. This contrasts greatly with PFI and BSF schemes of old. While councils have discretion on where this money is deployed, it’s expected that most Basic Need money will be spent on primary schools.

The virtues of the Basic Need programme are as follows: it comes with no transformation agenda (this saves councils time and effort producing lengthy, bland and meaningless documents); there is no detailed and complex PFI contract (this saves time on bidding, and gives councils more control over maintenance arrangements); and there is no prescription on which type or how many schools the money will be spent on.

What has led to the advent of Basic Need funding? Where there was a great deal of theorising, educational change and long-term planning by Labour for school buildings, there is none by the Coalition. The current Government will respond to two key criteria – dilapidation and demand – and so replace the worst buildings and respond to need.

The latter is a pressing concern; the birth rate in England and Wales rose from 596,000 in 2002 to 706,000 in 2009. This equates to 450,000 extra primary school places, or 2,000 new-build schools. Precisely how this demand is dealt with by the Government in the next year remains to be seen. So far the Basic Need budget has been pushed up to £1.1bn; this will cover 40,000 places. The actual level of demand is for 80 – 90,000 extra places.

Some of this will be covered by the opening Free Schools and another new money pot – the Academies Maintenance Fund – but not all. Action is needed to cover a potential shortfall in places starting this September and next. Having been neglected for a long time, primary school buildings had their brief moment in the sun with the abortive Primary Capital Programme (PCP). The fact that PCP was conceived after BSF, and was stopped so soon after its launch, showed that primary school capital development simply wasn’t a priority for previous governments. Now demographics have created a new imperative, expect to see council building project teams kept busy by primary schools for the foreseeable future.

About Building Future Education, BFE UK 2012

BFE UK 2012 is a two-day combined exhibition and conference taking place at the Business Design Centre, Islington, London from 9 – 10 May 2012.

It is the UK’s only event that caters for everyone involved in education building projects: design & build team leaders, public sector clients, and the supply chain.

The exhibition will be free to attend with free exhibition seminar content, plus a paid for conference.

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