MPs warn against rushed school building

The government should be cautious about relying on private money to fund new school building projects, a committee of MPs has warned.

The Commons education committee welcomed the government’s investment in school building but said the benefits would be lost if the government rushed through projects.

Around half of the £35 billion rebuild programme is set to be financed through PFI partnerships but the committee found this could leave councils financially vulnerable if circumstances changed.

Three PFI schools have been forced to close because of low pupil numbers, but local authorities are still financially tied to the private financiers.

When the East Brighton College of Media Arts closed the local authority was forced to pay £4.5 million to release itself from the contract. Essex and Balmoral High School in Belfast has also closed but the council is committed to paying £270,000 a year for the next 20 years.

Bishops Park College in Clacton cost £25 million to build and was visited by Tony Blair on the last election campaign. It has also now closed.

The government originally wanted 100 PFI schools to be built by next month but only a handful will be open in time.

The report warned against rushing the rebuilding scheme to meet self-imposed deadlines.

MPs said the government must take the time to consult with teachers and parents over what is needed in local areas.

Committee Barry Sheerman said: “This project is hugely ambitious in its scope. We welcome that ambition, but the question of whether BSF is the best way to spend £45 billion on education must be kept under regular review to ensure that its scope and aims remain appropriate.”

The Labour MP continued: “If the government is serious about educational innovation it must provide bold leadership to the whole sector. Research, innovation, the spread of good practice and action based on evidence should be at the heart of transformation.

“Schools and local authorities should also have the freedom to innovate and develop local solutions.

“Teachers and students need to be closely involved from the outset and the vital importance of their input should not be underestimated.”

The committee called on the government to combine early planning with key targets and warned against self-imposed guidelines.

Children minister Kevin Brennan agreed the government has a responsibility to the taxpayer to get the best value for money and insisted it would earn lessons from these early stages.

Mr Brennan continued: “Building Schools for the Future is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to address the historic legacy of underinvestment in secondary schools – and we welcome the committee’s acknowledgement and support for this.

“We have always been clear that we would develop and adapt the programme so that’s why we will continue to put in place a quicker, smarter and more efficient procurement and planning system to deliver these projects on time and on budget.”

Liberal Democrat schools spokesman Stephen Williams welcomed the broad school building programme, arguing no child should be educated in substandard buildings.

“But ministers must not fall into the trap of believing that flagship schools alone will transform educational standards,” he said.

“Pupils need inspiring teachers and a relevant curriculum as well.”