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The revival of lessons in a portacabin

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A guest briefing from Lucy Alderson, features writer at Construction News, on school buildings

I have many fond memories of my secondary school. But sitting through certain lessons in a portacabin that was little more than a shack at the bottom of a school field was not one of them.

In winter it was Antarctic; in summer it was face-melting.

The cabin rocked side to side if the wind blew a certain direction, and if you left a window open just one gust would send handouts flying across the class.

But it sounds like things haven’t changed that much since I left sixth-form.

According to a survey by teaching union NASUWT of more than 1,200 teachers, more than one in five said classrooms had been created in portacabins or other areas of the school to accommodate pupils.

Nearly 60% said the overall physical condition of their school had declined since they started working there, and 64% said their classrooms weren’t big enough.

Similarly depressing stats were read out by one exasperated NASUWT negotiating officer, Wayne Bates, earlier this week at a Westminster forum on school buildings.

Why was he so fed up? Because brows are still furrowed over whether free schools are the best use of scarce government resources to increase capacity.

More than £23bn will be invested into the schools estate during this parliament. Around £830m was pumped into building free schools between 2011 and 2016, and in March 2017 the government committed £320m to create 140 more.

But Mr Bates argued that free schools were continuing to open in areas where there were already school places to spare, according to NASUWT research.

“Instead of supporting schools to plan for an increase in pupil numbers, millions of pounds has been poured into the free schools programme, while pupils and teachers in other schools cram into inadequate buildings,” he said.

However, it’s worth noting that the Department for Education has sought to tackle this uproar since the National Audit Office published a rather embarrassing report in February last year.

The report revealed that the DfE’s free schools budget had been blown out of the water.

In 2010 the department had estimated that building 315 free schools by March 2015 would cost £900m. But by March 2015, this had rocketed to £1.8bn – and only 305 free schools had opened by this point.

Following this, the DfE set up a new property company, LocatEd, to engage with the private sector to buy free school sites more cheaply.

Speaking at this week’s forum, LocatEd chief executive Lara Newman said it had bought 50 sites in the past year and had a further 70 live commissions in the pipeline.

This equates to 21,000 school places. But considering LocatEd has £2bn to play with, 50 sites seems a little underwhelming.

Regardless of whether free schools are a good use of government money, they threaten to leave a black hole in government budgets if that cash is used unwisely.

This is precisely why is it vital that contractors (who know all too well about operating on slim margins) ramp up their engagement with government on how best to build, maintain and expand schools over the rest of this parliament.

Lucy Alderson, features writer at Construction News

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