Schools funds chief: ‘Prove that you’re good’
It is almost a year since education secretary Michael Gove announced the Priority Schools Building Programme to improve the condition of England’s school buildings.
In that time, the industry has been swamped by rumours and concerns about how the work - now worth up to £2.4 billion - will be procured.
Since 261 schools were named in May as making it onto the priority schools list, the demand for certainty over how the work will be funded, batched, awarded, designed and built has intensified.
But Education Funding Agency director of capital Mike Green appeals for the industry to “bear with us” as those crucial details are ironed out.
In his first interview since the body launched in April, Mr Green insists that all parties want to see quick progress and that work on site is “very close” to getting under way.
“Yes I understand the frustrations,” he says. “The only answer I can give is that we all want to see shovels in the ground. None of us gets prizes for talking about what we are going to do.”
But he concedes that timelines are liable to change as discussions with government departments, including the Treasury, continue.
“We’re very close. There are clearly hurdles that we still have to get through with the Treasury; there are things that could hold us back,” he says.
“I’m not moaning about the hurdles, but we will get through it as quickly as we can.
“Ministers are keen, as am I and as I’m sure industry is, that we get things going at a reasonable pace.
“There are all sorts of things going on at the moment that will hopefully get some holes dug in the ground in the quickest possible time.”
Mr Green, head of storecare at Alliance Boots Property prior to his EFA role, worked for various contractors, including Morrison Construction, at the start of his career.
He says he understands what contractors need and wants them to understand the pressures forcing him to keep them waiting on crucial details until they have been decided.
“The relationship I have with contractors is incredibly important to me - I was one,” he says. “I spent the first half of my career working for a few large civil engineering contractors, so I like to think I know what’s important to them.
“I would hate to think we’re going to tell contractors how to build things - that would be the wrong thing to do.”
Building schools efficiently is clearly very important, however.
“You talk to some people who are on-message on austerity and some people who haven’t got it,” says Mr Green.
“It’s the most important thing when you think about what will make them successful. Yes we want great schools, but commerciality is very important.”
As public sector work has dried up, the competition for schools work has grown increasingly fierce. A wide range of contractors is gearing up to bid for work under the PSBP as well as other work, including the remnants of Building Schools for the Future, that is still coming to market.
This has led to talk of contractors backing off the sector; of some of the regional contractors struggling to compete with their larger competitors; and of mid-tier firms struggling to lead on projects.
Mr Green says that while details on batches have yet to be decided, larger firms will have to take on large-scale work to protect both companies who would struggle to deliver the work and the client.
“Of course there isn’t a place for everyone,” he says. “I don’t want that to sound as harsh as it does, but it is about those people who perform and make a difference.
“Although it’s difficult, I suspect the carrot is bigger than the stick.
“If you do a great job, you would hope that there is more work for people who come across as better at this.
“We need to be careful here that we are not seen to favour a particular niche or tier of contractor; however, there is an appropriate level as well.”
School projects are expected to be procured in batches under the new programme, making it harder for small firms to win work through it.
“It is a big programme of work,” says Mr Green. “With a batch of schools of a significant size, there is a minimum size of contractor who will be able to work on that.
“There will be a level of turnover that is appropriate for delivering the batches we want delivered.
“Any smaller than that, then either we’re at risk or the contractor could be at risk for taking on too many eggs in one basket. It applies to both sides of the equation.”
The details of the make-up of the batches are yet to be finalised, Mr Green adds.
“We are having ongoing discussions around how we batch schools - whether it’s geographic, how many schools are in the pot, what’s the size of the pot - as well as being mindful there’s a pace element to work to.”
Fit for purpose?
Asked whether the EFA has the resources to manage such a large programme of work, Mr Green concedes that the delivery body could not manage the entire programme tomorrow.
But he says he will be under no restrictions when recruiting staff once the programme gets off the ground.
“As with any large programme, resources will vary, but we will not start hitting 50 batches of schools on the same day where I’ll need 500 people in the next week. We will be doing this in a controlled manner,” he says.
Will patience prove to be a virtue for companies looking to use their skills in education and waiting to hear how they can win work?
The message is clear: prove yourselves, benchmark and you will continue to win work.
“My challenge to contractors would be: prove how good you are,” Mr Green says. “We want innovation from the industry but it comes back to proof.
“My message to them would be that we share the same goals. We would like to be on the ground quickly, to be seen to be doing work efficiently.
“Please help us using all your skills as contractors and bear with us while we get through this period of getting the programme ready. It is not that we are trying to delay it; quite the reverse.”