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Primary interests

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The government’s huge investment programme for primary schools could mean a wealth of opportunities for smaller practices. Damian Arnold reports

More from: Primary interests

The biggest investment programme in English primary schools for over 40 years has begun. Under the government drive to affect ‘transformational change’ in education standards for young children, the Primary Capital Programme (PCP) will see hundreds of new schools built over the next few years.

How to get involved

Primary school design briefs often fit small and medium-sized niche practices that can handle budgets of up to £5 million, as opposed to upwards of £25-30 million for secondary schools, says Walters and Cohen partner Michál Cohen.

‘The whole engagement process for a primary school is different because the building is so much smaller and the head has intimate knowledge of every aspect of the school,’ says Cohen, who is working on a feasibility study for a PCP in the East London borough of Havering. ‘They have got the time to spend with you to get it right.’

The process requires consultation skills and lengthy scoping, says East director Julian Lewis, who recently worked on Sussex Road Primary School in Tonbridge, Kent. ‘My advice is to get to know the people. When we did Sussex Road, we spent days in the school seeing what happens. We found out more about the day-to-day experience of the children. There will be more priority on scoping the project with PCP.’

The Primary Strategy for Change documents published by local authorities set out long-term plans for rebuilding and refurbishing their primary school estates. They detail projects and ways in which the authorities will respond to government guidance on ‘transforming’ education through criteria such as integrating information and communications technology (ICT) and engaging parents in children’s learning. Cohen says that practices with no prior experience have a good chance of getting involved if they have a relationship with the local authority through other projects.

Sarah Wigglesworth, whose design for Sandal Magna Primary School in Wakefield is starting on site in April, advises firms to take a long-term view if they are interested in PCP. ‘It can take five or six years to really establish yourself in this sector unless you are very lucky,’ she says.


Local authorities have the freedom to decide how they procure the PCP. This is the opposite to the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme, which is under the auspices of central government organisation Partnerships for Schools. With Partnerships for Schools as a key partner in Local Education Partnerships (LEP) with local authorities and private sector partners, schools have been bundled up into contractor-led projects with architects chosen from a national framework.

Under the PCP, Partnerships for Schools is taking a back seat and councils are expected to use a variety of procurement methods and contract forms. Many are likely to design projects in-house with an existing private sector property services partner. However,
the 18 existing school-building LEPs are encouraged to procure PCP projects under the same route as BSF schemes. This could lead to a collection of small-scale primary school projects bundled up into contractor-led contracts.

‘Local authorities could procure them as one-off projects or bundle them into their BSF programmes,’ says Cohen, who is working on projects for the LEP in Bristol with contractor Skanska. ‘My concern with this approach is that once they’ve done the secondary schools, will there be much resource left for the smaller primary school projects? Also, I’m not sure all the architects on the BSF framework are the right architects [to do primary schools].’

Of the local authorities consulted by the AJ, Coventry City Council said it was likely to procure its PCP projects through its BSF department. Meanwhile, Bristol City Council will procure some of its initial five-year, £46 million PCP through its LEP with Skanska. Manchester City Council will procure the PCP using the national BSF framework of architects.

In Birmingham, the LEP, which includes private sector partner Catalyst Lend Lease, is expected to deliver some of the PCP. However, a spokesman says: ‘There are definitely opportunities for good young practices.’

Smaller practices

The good news for smaller practices is that many PCP primary schools are expected to be procured as one-off projects under conventional JCT contracts. This will favour smaller practices because they are of the right size to work for the fees available for such individual schemes.

‘In BSF it has been hard for practices below 10 people or with PII [professional idemnity insurance] of less than £10 million to get involved,’ says RIBA director of practice Adrian Dobson. ‘There should be more chance with the PCP for a broader range of people to become involved than with a big LEP package of work.’

Neil Pates, commercial director at contractor Kier, which works on many school-building projects, expects to work with lots of smaller practices. ‘I would hope that the PCP generates more opportunities for a specialised local designer. We have a completely different supply chain for primary school work than with secondary schools, academies and higher education,’ says Pates, adding that Kier is working with local architect ACP on Pathfinder PCP projects in the London Borough of Barnet. ‘On primary schools we tend to work more with local architects, who are very much smaller and more specialised.’

However, there is concern that because local authorities are being encouraged to use the existing LEP/BSF procurement route where possible, well-suited smaller practices will be ignored. The ability of LEPs to take on small teams needs to be looked at, according to CABE’s head of enabling, Peter Maxwell. ‘There may be an issue if local authorities choose to use an existing BSF Local Education Partnership framework for their primary schools,’ he says. ‘Smaller practices may be able to get involved with designing primary schools through this, but that will be dependent on how each Local Education Partnership is set up.’ One option might be to partner up with bigger firms – a route that Sarah Wigglesworth Architects is negotiating at the moment, with a view to going for bundles of work.

Bigger practices that have prospered in BSF are expected to try to muscle in on the PCP in the current economic climate. Gavin Elliott, head of education at BDP, says: ‘They are small projects, probably on the cusp of what we would be interested in, and, in all honesty, more interesting to small-to-medium [firms], but obviously times have changed and we are all interested in them now.’

At Sheppard Robson, partner Alan Shingler is heading up a newly formed group to look into bidding for PCP projects. ‘We haven’t made a final decision on whether we are going to invest a huge amount of effort into it,’ he says. ‘We tend to be quite selective about small projects and we just need to look as a practice at how we might add value to the process.’

What is the Primary Capital Programme (PCP)?

About half of all English primary schools will be rebuilt or refurbished in the next 15 years under the PCP. The programme began last year with 23 local authority ‘Pathfinders’ investing £150 million to deliver the first projects by September this year.

Last November, the government gave the go-ahead for an additional £1.75 billion to be invested in the PCP from the Treasury until 2011. Local authorities will come up with £1.8 billion from their own funding sources for the period up to 2011. 

The programme’s national roll-out starts in April, with £650 million of Treasury funds expected to be spent in 2009/10 and £1.1 billion in 2010/11. After 2011, the government expects around £500 million a year to be invested in an overall £7 billion capital spend.

Of the 1,500 schools in the programme, around 350 will be new schools, 850 will be big refurbishments and 350 will be smaller refurbishments. About 150 existing schools will be taken out of use.

In June 2008, 133 local authorities submitted plans to revamp their primary school estate to the Department for Children, Schools and Families. Some 41 local authorities have funding confirmed for the next two years, while 92 have funding for the next year but are required to do more work before it is approved for 2010/11. Fifteen local authorities have been asked to resubmit their strategies because of ‘significant weaknesses and omissions’.

Case study: Sarah Wigglesworth Architects

Sarah Wigglesworth’s £4.5 million Sandal Magna Primary School in Wakefield, Yorkshire, is a direct appointment with PCP money under a traditional contract. The school is a version of the practice’s original design for the government, which was first produced in 2003.

The catchment area for the school includes a large Bangladeshi community, and part of the brief was to encourage the children’s mothers, many of whom do not speak much English, to get involved in the school. Sandal Magna, which starts on site in April, will provide a special community room for this purpose.

The school will be configured as a strip of rooms and outdoor spaces offering classrooms of all sizes. ‘We didn’t want a deep plan that you can’t get out of very quickly. We wanted permeability so there are no dark corners where people get bullied,’ says Wigglesworth.

The practice is also working on feasibility schemes for the PCP in Camden, London, working up to Stage C. It has been on Camden’s schools framework and has been working with the borough for five years.

A new primary school and a refurbishment, then, but no guarantee that the practice will be appointed project architect. ‘We do a lot of work building up relationships with pupils, governors and people in the community. That’s the thing that takes time. When you don’t win the project it is very galling and disappointing,’ says Wigglesworth.

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