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Buy cheap, buy twice

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The Priority Schools Building Programme’s austerity-driven approach could turn out more costly in the long term, says Denise Chevin

Building Schools for the Future was certainly exhilarating while it lasted, but most of us would agree Labour’s money-no-object approach to school building needed a reality check. As Marcus Fagent, head of education at EC Harris and technical adviser to the Education Funding Agency, told me: ‘We have to decide whether it is better for 10,000 children to be educated in schools that aren’t falling down, or for 5,000 to be educated in schools that are beautiful.’

The question now is whether government has over-corrected and its Priority Schools Building Programme’s austerity-driven approach to school procurement is storing up expensive problems for a few years down the line, and we will have to pay heavily for its mistakes.  The common view is clearly that it has, and that it is, and that we will.

I have much sympathy with this view. It’s not whingeing from professionals refusing to accept we live in difficult times. Architects and contractors alike recognise there’s a respectable utilitarian argument for getting more out of the school building budget and are trying hard to make the new programme work. Despite protestations that slashing by half (compared with BSF) the £/m2 allotted to building the 278 schools in the first wave of this programme can only produce half-decent school buildings, architects have used their design ingenuity to rescue humdrum floor plates and create delight. Well-designed buildings have emerged – Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios’ school in Plymouth (pictured) is one.

But, as many architects and contractors are pointing out, with an almost uniquely united single voice: just because we can do it, doesn’t mean we should. Bargain-basement approaches generally cost more in the long term. And not just materially: the narrow corridors with which these schools are having to be built are more likely to foster bullying, according to Sorrell Foundation research.

When the PSBP was established in 2011, contractors’ cupboards were bare and building costs were low. But estimators don’t need A-level maths to see that taking on a school contract now is not economical. And it’s not just about the sums not adding up. ‘We’re building schools we’re not particularly proud of,’ one mightily disgruntled contractor tells me.

The client – the Education Funding Agency (EFA) – is not helping with an aggressive contractual approach totally at odds with the Cabinet Office line on the virtues of collaboration. The EFA clearly perceives that building firms and architects are crying wolf over pricing. Contractors might say they won’t bid but there’s always enough who do. In the poker game of tendering, the EFA is holding its nerve and pleasing its master.

The next wave of the programme will be critical. PSBP2 focuses on replacing blocks, rather building whole schools, so designs will be bespoke. As Fagent says: ‘It will require all the creativity architects can bring to make a success of these more complicated design challenges.’

But it’s worth remembering that in the schools programme only about a quarter of the funding comes through the PSBP – the rest of the annual £5 billion spend is going to free schools, to directly procured local authority schools to expand, and to maintenance. Though all are allocated similar levels of EFA funding, reckoned to be around £10,000 per school place, some local authorities have supplemented this to ensure a better product.

So, given that schools budgets are unlikely to be any more generous and work more plentiful elsewhere, will architects and contractors give PSBP2 a miss? It would be a victory for the industry, and for pupils, if the EFA were to take this threat more seriously, adopt a more conciliatory approach and find more money. In business, as in the playground, no one likes a bully.

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