School rebuild plans hit by delays

Almost �2bn of work to radically remodel every East Anglian high school could face big delays because of 'poor planning' that has left the national rebuild programme well behind schedule, a Norfolk MP said last night.

Almost �2bn of work to radically remodel every East Anglian high school could face big delays because of 'poor planning' that has left the national rebuild programme well behind schedule, a Norfolk MP said last night.

Scores of schools in Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire are among thousands hoping for an overhaul as part of the government's multi-billion pound Building Schools for the Future (BSF), which aims to renew every secondary school in England.

Last night, a report by the Commons' public accounts committee (PAC) said the 'overly optimistic' �55bn scheme was falling behind schedule and was leaving many schools disappointed by lengthening delays.

South Norfolk MP and PAC member Richard Bacon said: 'A lot of Norfolk's secondary school stock was built in the 1950s and 1960s. Some of it is barely fit for purpose. There's an awful long way to go.'

He added: 'The aim of the programme is to help pupils get better results by rebuilding or refurbishing every secondary school in the country. This is certainly a worthwhile goal so it's a pity that this programme has been untroubled by reality at nearly every stage.

'From the start, poor planning and persistent over-optimism created expectations for BSF that were never going to be met.'

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He said 200 schools were meant to be rebuilt or refurbished by December 2008, but only 42 had been.

'If the government is now going to meet its revised target to improve every school in England by 2023, then it needs to build 250 schools a year from 2011 onwards.

'This is an immense challenge, but neither the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) nor Partnerships for Schools seems to have grasped just how much has got to be done.

'The department must look at this scheme in the cold light of day and be honest about what can realistically be achieved before this programme slips further behind.'

He added: 'There's been some progress in Norfolk in other areas, including a �7m spend at Long Stratton High and �9m at Wymondham College. But equally if you go to a school like Diss High, the buildings are down at heel. Norfolk needs this work to happen.'

Norfolk is currently waiting for Partnerships for Schools, which oversees BSF and is headed by former Norfolk County Council chief executive Tim Byles, to say whether it has been successfully in bidding for early entry into the programme for the first wave of the county's high schools.

If all goes to plan, building work could start in 2012, with all the projects completed by 2015. But the schools in the remaining waves of projects will have to wait and hope that the money keeps flowing before they will know how soon they will be rebuilt. The overall value of the work is �700m.

With more than �500m of work to do, Cambridgeshire has made a headstart because Fenland was in one of the first waves and work is about to start. But there is less certainty about the remaining areas of the county.

Suffolk's overall scheme is valued at �790m. South and south-west Ipswich and Felixstowe will be the first areas to benefit, with work likely to begin in 2011. The county council is waiting to hear from the government about the priority order for other schemes.

Mr Bacon pointed out that the 111 staff employed by Partnerships for Schools were paid an average of �85,000 each, but �5.6m had been paid to consultants in four years.

He said: 'With all these highly paid people, I wonder why they are not delivering. And the justification for high salaries should be because you've got the expertise to deliver the work. So why are they paying for consultants to do it for them?'

The PAC report said the original plan was for BSF to take 10-15 years, but it was now expected to take 18 years.

It said that meeting the target would require the doubling of the number of schools in procurement and construction, the construction of 250 schools a year from 2011 onwards and the entry into BSF of eight or nine local authorities a year.

Schools minister Vernon Coaker said: 'BSF is accelerating so that by 2011, at least 200 BSF schools will be opening every year and a further 300 a year will be under construction.

'We've never been complacent about BSF. BSF is a completely unprecedented project, not a race to spend money. We've always been upfront about the early delays but we've listened and learnt lessons.'