Birth of a nation

As we enter 2012 there are so many opportunities and policy changes just starting to make an impact on the building schools landscape. One major development in the sector has come in under the radar and will have a greater short term impact than Priority Schools, Academy conversions or Free Schools. Last year the DfE announced £1.1Bn worth of Basic Need funding. The premise of this funding is pretty vague but industry experts are predicting this will be mostly directed towards primary school projects. In theory that’s enough money to construct around 250 newbuild primary schools, though in this age of refurbishment and remodelling it will be spread over far more.

Basic Need money is likely to be channelled towards the primary sector for two reasons – 1) The cancellation of the Primary Capital Programme, which had barely got past the pilot stage left an echoey void in funding for this sector and 2) The birthrate bounce has created the need for several thousand new school places. Reports have varied on just how many new places are needed – the ONS figures show that the birthrate increased from 596,000 in 2002 to 708,000 in 2008. While it’s difficult to obtain precise age-group figures on net migration it’s safe to say that this is affecting demand for places too and a conservative estimate here is around 10,000 – 15,000 a year. Overall, more than 500,000 extra places are required for primary school children compared to the early years of the millennium.

Beyond the national statistics there are local trends that are creating infrastructure bottlenecks – more families with young children are opting to stay in city centre locations where historically they’d move to suburban and rural billets. The need for more places is therefore acute in big cities. Though the rationale for Free Schools is not to deliver quick-win capacity increases, the conversion of existing buildings means they’re handily placed to do this. So far the DfE has gone about halfway to addressing the challenge posed by the baby boom – the new money allocated for capacity increases is intended to deliver 40,000 new school places annually – the actual need is closer to 100,000.

There’s a number of options on the table to fill the gap – a continued expansion of the Basic Need funding route, greater use of Free Schools style building conversion, increasing use of mobile/temporary classrooms – or an option rarely considered so far – conversion of unused space in undersubscribed secondary schools. This pressing need for new capacity will create a decent pipeline of work for the construction industry, including SMEs locked out of large scale PFI schemes, and for the property industry, hitherto not engaged in the state school sector. Once again at the start of a new era, new operators are entering the building schools marketplace. We wish them luck and hope for a positive outcome as they get to grips with a new set of challenges.

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