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Will the new ESFA deliver on free schools?

Raising the topic of free schools is like prodding a wasp nest. It could provoke some strong reactions.

It’s a contentious issue, demonstrated yesterday by the responses to the Department for Education’s official launch of its new property company, LocatED.

This company will buy and develop sites to achieve the government’s aim of building 500 free schools this parliament – but enthusiasm has been rather lacklustre to say the least.

National Union of Teachers general secretary Kevin Courtney called the launch “deeply despairing” and said the company “will do nothing to improve the hugely wasteful free schools project”.

Shadow education secretary Angela Rayner said the set-up showed the DfE’s “growing desperation to find suitable sites” and called for the government to focus on delivering school places in a sustainable way that ensured value for money.

For the construction industry, the main question mark over the government’s pet project will be whether the Education and Skills Funding Agency, as it will become next month, can open these schools within budget and on time.

It seems that LocatED is a step in the right direction, as its purpose is to help the ESFA purchase free school sites more efficiently and at better value for money.

From 2010 to 2015, predecessor body the Education Funding Agency spent an average of 19 per cent more on land for free schools than official valuations and costs for these free schools have spiralled, according to a National Audit Office report released last month.

However, whatever happens with the land, these schools aren’t going to build themselves: you need contractors lined up to deliver the jobs.

However, Construction News revealed today that the EFA had fallen behind with the procurement of its next national construction framework, thought to be worth up to £8bn.

After significant delays, a contract notice could finally be issued this week, but one source told Construction News the ESFA will now be under “huge pressure” to get a framework in place for November, which is when the existing deal expires.

Futhermore, it emerged today that EFA chief executive Peter Lauener will retire following the merger of the body with the Skills Funding Agency – which he also oversees. Mr Lauener will only stay on at the merged body but only until a replacement is found - it will be interesting to see what impact this has on procurement.

One thing is for sure – more schools need to be built: two every day to be exact, according to a report released by Scape.

Contractors will be crossing their fingers that the new-look ESFA and LocatED can give them the opportunity to work towards this.

Also in the news:

Reporter Jack Simpson today revealed CH2M had withdrawn from the £170m phase two delivery partner contract for High Speed 2 – with Bechtel tipped to take it on.

Amey is the only firm to have missed out on work following a major shake-up of the consultancy lot of Highways England’s Collaborative Delivery Framework.

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