The framework for delivering school places

By the academic year 2021/22, more than 385,000 additional pupils will be entering England’s primary and secondary school system, creating a need for extra classrooms. Mark Robinson explains how modern methods of construction can tackle the challenge

Every child in the UK has the right to a high-quality education that gives them the best start in life. However, faced with a growing population, an impending boom in numbers of school children and an unfavourable funding model, many cash-strapped local authorities are feeling the pressure. Unless a step change takes place quickly, the effect on the overall standard of education and the wider economy will be felt for generations to come.

School places capacity crisis

Our latest research, the School Places Challenge 2019, reveals that by the academic year 2021/22, more than 385,000 additional pupils will be entering  England’s primary and secondary school system. This creates the urgent need for 12,835 extra classrooms to be built and ready for intake. This isn’t just limited to England; it is a national problem - Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will see an additional 33,179 pupils enter the school system by 2020/21, with the need for an extra 1,136 classrooms. In total, we need 640 new schools across the UK by 2021/2022.
This is the fourth iteration of our report looking at the school places capacity crisis, and whilst local authorities have made great strides in increasing the number of primary schools, these children are now moving on to secondary education and the demand has shifted. In March, record numbers of children missed out on their first choice of secondary school and appeals against secondary school offers have doubled in six years.
For the last two years, the government has been pre-occupied with Brexit and education has ultimately fallen down the political agenda to the detriment of the next generation. But we can’t expect local authorities to provide the new schools and classrooms they need while contending with decreasing budgets and limited options. Further innovation is needed if they are expected to squeeze more out of less.
The Conservative party now has a majority for the first time in a decade and our new Department for Education has the power to address the urgent need for school places by providing local authorities with fair budgets in line with local needs and population growth. Ahead of the election campaign, Boris Johnson had pledged to increase school spending by £7.1 billion by 2022-23, however the Institute for Fiscal Studies has said this will result in spending per pupil being “no higher than it was 13 years earlier”.

A robust strategy

In order to see a real step-change in delivery, the government and local authorities must collectively focus on implementing a robust strategy and solutions which provide engaging, modern spaces for teaching and learning. A fairer education funding model would ensure that local authorities and central government work more closely together to set budgets that reflect local need. Local authorities playing a part in judging and approving free school proposals is critical if we want to create new schools where they are needed the most.
Additionally, local authorities need cost certainty, value for money and timely delivery, to ensure that there are more high-quality schools for parents and their children to choose from.
We are committed to helping our public sector colleagues deliver new schools for their communities that provide positive learning environments, on time and on budget. By minimising disruption and supporting greater levels of operational efficiency, together we can deliver environments that positively contribute to the learning experience. Early engagement, true collaboration and open dialogue have helped us deliver over 15,000 school places for local communities over the last three years.
Whilst value for money means different things to different people, our holistic approach embeds a 20 per cent minimum social value requirement on every public sector project, ensuring that we can create social value not only through the physical environments they help to create and maintain, but also the economic activity they generate, both locally and nationally.

Smart buildings

The future of school building must focus on an education-first approach to design, and we need to be constantly challenging ourselves to be more efficient, innovative and smart in the provision of school places. Using innovative solutions such as standardised design and technologies such as offsite construction is the key to this. Modern Methods of Construction (MMC) not only enable more efficient project delivery, but can also cost local authorities significantly less, whilst creating high-quality spaces for pupils to thrive. On average it is 30 per cent faster to produce plans for a modular building in comparison to a traditional build, which means it is possible to reach ‘design freeze’ earlier. This allows architects to spend more time considering how staff and pupils will use the building and its spaces from day to day.
However, the opportunities created by modular and offsite construction have yet to be fully embraced. The government, local authorities and the construction industry must work together to ensure that Modern Methods of Construction sit at the heart of the solution. This could involve a review of planning policy to see pre-approved modular designs ‘fast-tracked’ through the planning system or pieces of land allocated specifically for modular construction.
On top of this, greater collaboration between councils and developers is needed to ensure that secondary schools are built in major urban development’s first through agreements between developers seeking planning permission and the local planning authority (Section 106 agreements), so that the area is prepared to meet increased demand. Increasingly, schools are being included within masterplans for large-scale redevelopment projects, but so far this has focused heavily on primary schools and needs to be expanded to include secondary schools too.
As local authorities have experienced progressive budget cuts, they have become increasingly under strain to deliver with less. However, by comparing our performance against ESFA costs per school place scorecards, we know that we’re around 15 per cent cheaper than the national average. Additionally, we have helped clients build brand-new primary schools in as little as 37 weeks.
Education isn’t a choice; it is a fundamental right and our children deserve the best chance to succeed. Until the government takes more pragmatic action, they cannot claim to be safeguarding the futures of the UK’s young people. However, original thinking and collaboration between the public and private sector will go some way to ensuring we give the next generation a fighting chance.

Unless we think and act more creatively now, the challenge of school place provision is only going to get worse. Good schools are the bedrock of our society, and there really can’t be any room for error.


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