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Comment: Post-BSF future looks bleak

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Sebastian James, author of the James Review, offered little clarity at the IOC Conference on how the government will implement his report’s recommendations for new schools, says Yasmin Shariff

The City & Financial conference on how to implement the James Review may have been premature, considering the government has still not made its conclusions on the report, published 8 April. If their delayed response is anything to go by, the future of investment in education looks bleak.

The review team included former minister of construction John Egan; Kevin Grace, Tesco’s property services director; and former vice-chancellor of Oxford University, John Hood.

At best the review managing big estates and office blocks
well, but they have little experience of nurturing learning, nor any track record of how to procure school buildings efficiently and effectively.

James outlined the obvious failing of BSF: it was an arduous process, with 143 steps to get money to schools and about nine different groups responsible for its allocation. He said that BSF buildings cost too much and that it was cheaper to build schools in Denmark and Germany, although he offered no analysis or figures to explain why the Continent is cheaper when labour prices are much higher.

The James Review considered BSF a dirty word; that it was too complex, too costly and too difficult

No single BSF project was analysed to demonstrate what worked or failed, with only a diagram showing how quality varied. Tim Byles, former chief executive of Partnerships for Schools, remarked that there had been 18 reviews in the four and a half years of BSF and there was no shortage of examples from which to learn lessons. Yet it seemed the James Review considered BSF a dirty word; that it was too complex, too costly and too difficult. Transformational design was demonised, while templates and identikit options were idolised. Only a pilot project, Campsmount Technology College by CPMG, phoenix-like, arose from its ashes (pictured). Yet it was anything but a pilot.

Campsmount is bespoke and site-specific and there is no evidence that it piloted any savings. It did not have a templated design and there was no central ‘intelligent client body’ helping the school.

James highlighted that the focus of government policy will be 70-80 per cent refurbishment without contrasting with new build costs. The review estimates the backlog of repairs and maintenance to be from £8 billion to £22 billion. It will be difficult, if not impossible, to work out what needs to be done, because there has been little accountability or monitoring.

There are 17 pots of money for work such as toilet refurbishments and kitchen replacements. This means those who fill out forms get the money, rather than those who need it most.

While government deliberates its response, we are sitting on a population time bomb. The rising birthrate has created a high demand for primary school places, which will hit the secondary sector in 2017.

The James Review does not set out how to implement the changes, this being the responsibility of chief construction adviser, Paul Morrell. Let’s hope that those responding to the review are able to work out a solution that overcomes prejudice against designers, yet cuts out the excesses of BSF. As head teacher Alan Sprakes, says: ‘Ultimately it is about our young people. They will shape the destiny of our nation… It is doomed to fail if it is not.’

 Architect Yasmin Shariff was the former head of design at E-ACT, a multi-academy sponsor. Last week Sebastian James, tasked by government with overhauling England’s school building programme, discussed the implementation of the James Review’s proposals, first published in April. Shariff was among the delegates drawn from the design and construction industries who attended the day-long event at the IOC Conference, London.


Caroline Mayes, from Stride Treglown said: ‘This conference was always going to be a slightly difficult event to pitch without the official Government response to the James Review…

‘In terms of the ‘policy makers’, it was disappointing not to hear any more insight into what PFS would be procuring over the next few months in terms of specific timescales.  Sebastian James toed the party line, but could not back it up with any detail.  For me, Tim Byles summed it up: “It’s easy to think conceptually in a bubble, but its the getting from here to there that’s difficult” or words to that effect…and that’s the bit that the government don’t seem to want to talk about, but of course we all need to hear.

‘It was useful to hear more about the Campsmount pilot, which sounded anything but typical cost wise, though Wates should have been a bit clearer in their responses to the cost questions.

‘Michael Buchanan talked a lot of sense about standardisation – that a kit of parts approach (as opposed to ‘standard designs’) was the only thing that could produce spaces that meet the needs of our children.  The analogy that will stay with me is that there are only four kitchen manufacturers in the country, yet we all have exactly what we want in our (bespoke) kitchens from this range of components.  This will not be a quick conversation though… especially as the industry has already tried to agree on this before!

‘There was still a sense of frustration in the room, especially from Local Authority and Contractors that they STILL don’t understand the new ‘rules’.  We were promised a Government response ‘shortly’.’

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