'Time-wasting' accusation over school buildings
- 9 May 2012
- From the section Education & Family
The government has been accused of "wasting precious time" with school building plans, by the shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg.
The Department for Education has pushed converting schools into academies and creating new Free Schools.
But it has been accused of taking its time over rebuilding the dilapidated premises of existing schools.
The Department for Education said that these were important decisions and should not be rushed.
Education Secretary Michael Gove cancelled Labour's Building Schools for the Future programme in summer 2010.
Hundreds of secondary schools, which had planned for rebuilding, were disappointed.
Mr Gove then set up a review of all school building plans, which reported in April 2011. One key recommendation was a new survey of the condition of all schools in England.
In July 2011, Michael Gove announced the Priority School Building Programme, £2bn of private finance to rebuild the most dilapidated schools.
Applications had to be in by mid-October 2011 and schools were told they would hear in December.
It was to be a five-year programme. The scheme has been oversubscribed, and no decision has been announced, although one is now expected by the end of May 2012.
However, the school survey was only commissioned at the end of March 2012.
According to Davis Langdon, one of three project management companies doing it, this will allow the education department to compare buildings directly, allowing for "true prioritisation" of the programme.
Darren Talbot, Head of Schools at Davis Langdon, said he would expect the department to announce only the first of five waves of building this year - that would be 30-35 secondary schools.
Once the survey data is available, in about 15 months' time, the department, he believed, would use that to help decide the rest of the programme.
Without the full survey, he said, the department would be relying on "assumptions" and data provided by local authorities.
However the Department for Education said the survey and the Priority Schools Building Programme were entirely separate.
A spokeswoman said the survey would be used to help decide future funding. Priority schools would be decided by the department's internal funding agency.
For the schools waiting to hear any delay is difficult. Richard Lee Primary in Coventry was built in 1953, and only expected to last about 30 years.
The head teacher Nicola Harwood showed how the roof leaks in many places, the windows don't fit, there is rising damp. Cracks have recently appeared in the dining room and on the stairs.
A structural survey has indicated that by 2015 the steel frame may be unsafe. A nearby school of similar age had to be evacuated recently when a ceiling collapsed.
The children are very aware of the problems. Ten year olds told how the ill-fitting windows, and the damp, meant children often got ill, and had to miss school.
Nicola Harwood explained that without knowing when rebuilding might start, it was hard to know what should be done - fixing the roof, for instance, would cost around a million pounds.
The local authority has cut the money allowed for repairs - this year she has only £9,000 in the budget.
Pressure on places
Priority School Building is not the only capital available for schools. But the local authority, Coventry, said they have spent their capital allowance on providing new primary places: even though the government did provide some additional funding for this. Here, as in many parts of England, the population is growing.
David Simmonds, head of the Children's Board at the Local Government Association said that phasing the school building announcements could be difficult - because authorities and head teachers needed to plan, and because the demand is high and urgent. A survey by the LGA, of 103 authoirties, showed at least 476 schools had applied for the funding.
Mr Simmonds said schools and parents were telling local authorities that the condition of some schools was so poor it was getting in the way of providing a good education. He said the situation was now "unacceptable".
Whenever new schools are built, they will be far cheaper than under Labour's Building Schools for the Future Programme. Davis Langdon has been working on new ways of building to cut costs, using standardised designs, and new techniques.
Whilst a BSF school would cost about £25m, the new secondary schools will be far cheaper. One new secondary, in Doncaster, cost just £10.7m.
The builders Wilmot Dixon are working with a consortium of local authorities to devise new ways of building primary schools. Their first, Oakfield in Rugby, will cost just over £2m.