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BSF chief courts smaller firms

The chief executive of Building Schools for the Future management body Partnerships for Schools says he is keen to get more small and medium sized contractors involved in the £45 billion programme.

PfS chief Tim Byles told a Schools, Children and Families select committee evidence session yesterday (14 July) that the BSF programme was on track to meet its delivery targets this year as it seeks to upgrade every secondary school in England over a 15 year period.

Committee member Douglas Carswell suggested that this delivery had been achieved by “putting the money on the balance sheet of a small number of large corporations”, creating barriers to entry to the programme for smaller firms.

But these claims were rebuffed by Mr Byles who said that there were currently 21 consortia actively pitching for BSF work, with three new teams preparing to enter the fray.

He added that there were numerous opportunities for SMEs to get involved.

He said: “We are keen to get SMEs to participate. We are already seeing them in the supply chains for bid consortiums, and we are seeing some medium sized firms leading these consortia on some of the smaller BSF projects.”

Mr Byles said that a balance needed to be struck between having a broad market to bid for projects with the learning that comes from firms with experience of bidding for and building a series of projects.

Other details from Mr Byles evidence session included:

• His expectation that the link between BSF and the Primary Capital Programme to upgrade England’s primary schools would soon be clarified by the Government.

• A confirmation that every school built using BSF would have a post-occupancy evaluation carried out, starting with the Skanska-built Bristol Brunel Academy this autumn.

• That while he felt that the One School Pathfinder programme had proved itself capable in terms of sorting out individual schools in need of rapid improvement, Mr Byles did not think that such procurement was the optimum solution for wider school development, as some of the schools built under the programme had scored poorly for value-for-money.

• That PfS was recommending that more risk related to energy prices throughout the life of a school be pushed onto the private sector BSF consortium.

The session also heard from Ty Goddard, director of the British Council for School Environments and Cabe chief executive Richard Simmons.

Mr Goddard said that, while steps had been taken to improve the process, he still had concerns over the procurement.

He said: “We still have a process that wastes money and duplicates the efforts of world class design and world class builders. There is a high cost to bidders for BSF schemes producing designs to a late stage that may never be built. This is procurement that was fit-for-purpose in 2001-03 but is it still up to speed and can it respond to the needs of children’s services?”

Mr Goddard said that he was baffled that the government hadn’t trialled various types of procurement for BSF projects.

He said: "We are locked into a procurement system that is non-innovative”.

Mr Simmons said that he anticipated that the move to provide more services on the site of schools built under the BSF programme could result employers setting up workspaces in schools to get closer to potential employees while they were still in education.