School building boost is ‘a drop in the ocean’

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Ministers announce a £2 billon extension to the coalition government's school building programme, but teachers say the money is nowhere near enough and will leave thousands of students being taught in dilapidated classrooms. Pete Henshaw reports.

A £2 billion fund to rebuild the most run-down schools in the country has been described as a “drop in the ocean” that will still leave thousands of students being taught in dilapidated classrooms.

As the first school to be rebuilt under the coalition government’s Priority School Building Programme (PSBP) opened its doors last week, ministers announced plans for a second round of funding, worth around £2 billion.

The Department for Education (DfE) has been conducting a survey of the schools estate which is due to be completed this summer and details of how schools will be selected to benefit from the new funding are to be released shortly.

However, teachers have warned that the money is nowhere near enough given the scale of rebuilding work needed across England’s schools.

The PSBP was launched after the government axed the £50 billion Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme in 2010, pulling funding from many schools that were on the verge of being rebuilt. In 2012, it unveiled PSBP as the replacement for BSF, inviting applications for around £2.4 billion in funding.

Almost 600 schools applied, with 261 being successful. The first of these to be rebuilt, Whitmore Park Primary School in Coventry, opened its doors this week after a £5 million investment.

Among the remaining schools, 26 are currently under construction while design work has begun at 234. The DfE says that all 261 projects are on course to be delivered by the end of 2017. Whitmore Park is being seen as a “model” for PSBP schools after procurement took 13 weeks and the building works lasted 11 months.

Announcing the second phase of the PSBP, schools minister David Laws said that “too many schools are in a poor condition”.

In a written statement, he said: “I am announcing that, as part of our capital expenditure over the next spending review period from 2015 to 2021, we will fund a second phase of the PSBP, with a value of around £2 billion.

“The original PSBP worked on the basis of the condition of the whole school site. We will now refine this to look at targeting individual school buildings, as well as whole school rebuilds where this is appropriate, so that the department can focus much more tightly on addressing specific issues in the estate. This is only possible thanks to the data coming out of our detailed condition survey.

“That survey will be complete by the summer and will give us a detailed pattern of need which will be a useful tool for targeting the available resources most effectively.”

Mr Laws said details on how schools are to be selected for funding would follow shortly but has placed copies of the application guidelines in the House of Commons libraries for MPs.

The Association of Teachers and Lecturers said this week that the investment was “a drop in the ocean and will leave thousands of children in dilapidated buildings”. General secretary Dr Mary Bousted said: “Hundreds of thousands of children are still in dilapidated schools with leaking roofs, draughty or baking rooms which this second phase of school building will not change. 

“Thousands of schools and colleges which desperately need repairing, and were promised refurbishment under the previous government’s BSF programme, will get no help.

“Instead of ensuring the schools that most need rebuilding or refurbishing get funding this coalition government has chosen to fund free schools in areas where there aren’t any shortage of school places.”

Dr Bousted also expressed suspicion over the plan to target funding on individual buildings: “As with some of its other education reforms, notably axing the Education Maintenance Allowance, when this government uses the word ‘targeted’ it appears to mean a vastly reduced programme.”

The government argues, however, that spending under BSF was “wasteful” and that individual building projects took too long.

The DfE says that during the current Parliament, it will have spent £18 billion on the schools estate, including £5 billion to support the provision of new school places and £2.8 billion for the maintenance of school buildings.

Mr Laws said the coalition has built or improved the condition of almost 900 schools.

Elsewhere, while welcoming the second phase of the PSBP, local authorities this week urged the government to give them more control over spending the money.

Cllr Nick Forbes, vice-chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, said: “(PSBP) is a highly centralised programme which could be more efficient if money was paid into a single pot in each area and councils were able to work with local schools and academies to decide priorities and commission building work and repairs accordingly.

“There are some schools with significant problems with their buildings and it is vital this money reaches those schools with the greatest need. Councils would be able to repair crumbling classrooms more quickly if money was passed straight to local areas rather than disseminated through a national bidding process.”

Dr Bousted added: “If the government allowed local authorities to plan and fund schools places where they are needed, instead of insisting that only Whitehall can decide, far more parents would have secured the first choice of school for their children.

“This coalition government has an unfortunate habit of scrapping key education programmes and then introducing small-scale replacement schemes with a large fanfare.”

 


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