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Department for Education rejects claims £2bn Priority Schools has hit delays and funding problems

The Department for Education has rejected claims the £2 billion private finance element of the Priority Schools Building Programme has been delayed after not one of the 219 schools has secured funding - but would still not give specific details of start dates.

A survey by the Local Government Association across the 261 schools in the £2.4bn programme said just 19 of the 158 schools that responded have had any work procured.

It also said as many as 66, or 45 per cent, have not heard anything at all regarding start dates from the Education Funding Agency, the government unit running the programme.

A report by the BBC today also said the EFA has yet to secure investment to fund any of the private finance element, which accounts for the majority.

But the Department for Education rejected claims the programme - set to go to market in the spring - has been delayed, and said that every school has been contacted and given start dates.

It said the first privately financed batches will hit the market “shortly”, but could not be any more specific.

It confirmed it is looking at a number of options including a bond finance solution, but said it is “essential that we take time to secure the right finance arrangement for each school and the best possible deal for the taxpayer”.

The overall programme includes 219 schools that are supposed to be privately financed through the new PFI, called PF2, with the rest already being procured with £0.4m of capital funding.

The LGA survey said “many” of the 261 schools in the overall programme have been told that contracts for building work are unlikely to be awarded until 2015, meaning work is unlikely to be completed until at least 2016 - six years after the £2 billion building scheme was first announced.

It said 66, or 45 per cent, have not heard anything at all from the Education Funding Agency. The 92 that said they had been contacted regarding work said the contact “could be as basic as being aware of potential timetables”.

A DfE spokesperson said: “It is not true to say that the Priority Schools Building Programme is delayed. We have already appointed contractors for the first two batches of capital funded schools and we are tendering for the remaining capital funded schools.

“The first privately financed projects will be released to market shortly. All 261 schools have received confirmation of when we will start working with them.

“We are spending more on school buildings in this parliament than the previous government spent in its first two parliaments combined - more than £17 billion of taxpayers money and £2 billion of private investment.

“We have always been clear that the programme would take five years to procure.”

The LGA said a number of councils are now say they have been left with bills of tens of thousands of pounds or more to fund the bare minimum work needed to keep these schools open until vital work begins. This includes carrying out urgent roof repairs, repairing heating systems, removing asbestos and fixing dangerous wiring work.

It is now calling on government to “get on with the job of awarding contracts so sub-standard schools can be re-built more quickly and councils and head teachers can ensure children have good quality, safe and hygienic classrooms”.

Cllr David Simmonds, Chair of the LGA’s Children and Young People Board, said: “The department’s refusal to provide any reassurances is leaving schools in limbo and with councils’ stretched education budgets having already suffered a 32 per cent cut there is little room for manoeuvre at a local level.

“Government needs to act quickly and reassure mums and dads and head teachers that plans are being put in place to fix our crumbling schools.”

Mr Simmonds added: “The announcement of much needed funding to fix hundreds of the country’s most crumbling schools was as a positive move, but that was last summer and many parents are still none the wiser about when their child’s school will be brought up to scratch. This situation is now unacceptable and threatens to severely impact on our children’s education.”

Councils having to fund ‘urgent repairs work’

The LGA said Devon County Council has estimated it will need to spend £2.5 million on ‘urgent health and safety works’ for eight of its schools that are due to receive Priority School Building funding while North Lincolnshire has already had to spend £1.4 million on maintenance works in 2011/12.

Suffolk County Council has spent £1.1 million on essential works for the two worst school buildings in the county. Bury Council has set aside a £2 million contingency from its emergency fund to cover the potential cost of essential repairs at three of its schools while it awaits news on essential government support.

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