For an education secretary that acted with such alacrity when it came to scrapping the £55 billion Building Schools for the Future scheme, the slowness with which the details of the Priority Schools Programme are emerging is depressing.
But now, with construction being blamed in some quarters for the UK descending into a double-dip recession and fears swirling around the implications of the eurozone crisis, the government needs to be doing all it can to boost growth – and be seen to be doing it.
The £2bn Priority Schools pot is a drop in the ocean compared with the scale of school building that was going on previously; nonetheless it is something, and it’s been no use to anyone sitting unspent in the Treasury.
The extra £400 million the Treasury has clawed back and added to the total funds won’t go very far, but it will help special schools and those with the most desperate needs. Now we know which schools are being funded, contractors need to know urgently how they can set about building them.
Will the first 42 projects be let through existing academies frameworks - allowing for a quick start by contractors on the list but no access to work for others – or will the work be opened up to all in an effort to boost regional growth and comply with the government’s mantra around giving access to local and SME players?
When it comes to the other 219, work can’t start until the government decides how it will replace PFI. CN understands the Treasury could release the outcome of its review of PFI in July, before Parliament breaks for the summer. It must ensure it does so.
Fortunately, the government has an interest in sticking to this latest timetable if it wants to stand any chance of reaping the rewards at the next general election.
It also needs to think carefully about the political risks of focusing exclusively on lowest cost now, only for maintenance costs to soar later. Of course, all this is little consolation for the 326 schools that are getting no funding at all.
Praise must go to those contractors including Balfour Beatty, Laing O’Rourke and Morgan Sindall who are among the sponsors of some of the next wave of university technical colleges, also announced this week.
The government may be storing up trouble for this generation of children in schools without funding, but it’s good to see contractors acting with an eye to the long-term development of both our young people and our economy.