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The EFA must avoid thwarting innovation in the priority schools programme

Through the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme, many contractors now have direct experience in delivering new and refurbished schools to a high standard.

Our industry is thus well placed to help the government meet its objectives – if we can work together, work quickly and stay flexible.

The Priority School Building Programme (PSBP) should be considered in context: a need for around 450,000 extra primary school places by 2015; a need to update and improve teaching environments; and a need to stimulate the economy.

The Education Funding Agency (EFA) says it is seeking a capital markets solution to fund the £2 billion PSBP programme, but that it will look at alternatives.

We hear conflicting accounts of the financial sector’s willingness to lend and invest. Contractors with capital to invest have an opportunity to propose another funding option – and by default provide an inbuilt incentive for high quality and timely delivery.

Austerity brings with it an understandable focus on short-term cuts, but longer-term savings are possible by looking at the whole-life operational costs of the designs.

The EFA has a clear sustainability agenda, which is welcomed, but it must avoid pricing out innovative measures through further standardisation of design and construction. Innovation moves quickly and we continue to demand more from our buildings, refurbished or new.

Contractors with capabilities in sustainable construction will be in a stronger position to introduce these types of savings.

In addition to more efficient procurement and design, the batching of schools will help deliver economies of scale, but contractors will be looking closely at the economics. 

A balanced yet flexible approach which selects the appropriate construction method but recognises when to use standardised designs is essential.

We support a kit-of-parts approach – to provide optimum flexibility and enable designs to meet the needs of individual schools. This approach supports the use of offsite and modular construction methods, which bring greater efficiency in procurement and better value for money.

The limit on the cost per square metre will certainly focus contractors’ minds. One hope is that it will also bring greater knowledge sharing, so that all schools projects benefit.

Contractors cannot be allowed to use the limits on cost per square metre as an excuse for cutting quality, however, so the EFA might consider measures to counter this.

The move away from bespoke designs will speed up delivery, but we still need room to innovate.

In places like Bristol we found that agreeing a standard classroom design with the local authority brought time and cost savings, but flexibility and consultation was still needed to make the whole site work well.

Schools need secure and flexible spaces that can accommodate a range of before and after-school groups. Many schools are also hubs for community activities, some of which provide an income stream.

In conclusion, experienced contractors, working in integrated teams, are uniquely well placed to help the government and the EFA meet their objectives for schools, but we also have an obligation to grasp the opportunity and help make it happen. 

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