How will we cope with the looming bulge in the school-age population?

In the Autumn of 2017, the Prime Minister declared that building homes for Britain was at the top of her agenda, summoning a selection of housebuilders and developers to Number Ten for a ‘summit’ on how to tackle the problem. I would argue there’s an issue which deserves equal billing on her domestic agenda – how we tackle the desperate condition of our school buildings.

In 2016 the Department for Education reported on a massive population bulge which will see a 10% increase in the number of children of secondary school age within the next decade – that’s equivalent to roughly 750,000 additional school places needed. Head teachers are warning that parents will find it increasingly difficult to find their children a place at a school of their choice.

Steve Beechey, Group Strategy Director and MD Government Affairs, Wates Group

Now consider our crumbling educational estate. Notwithstanding a flurry of activities under the Blair administration which saw new schools delivered under PFIs (Private Finance Initiatives) and Building Schools for the Future in the late 90s and early/mid 2000s, the preceding decade had seen school building grind into a very small gear. According to the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) - the body responsible for building the majority of publicly-funded schools – there are a little under 25,000 schools in England and Wales. Now consider that the average school has only a 60-year lifespan, with most of these buildings never properly maintained in any modern understanding of the word.

Essentially we are facing the very real prospect of schools becoming effectively unusable at a rate of 400 a year.

It’s a perfect storm and it’s coming right when we need to be giving our young people the best possible opportunity to succeed as they face an uncertain economic future post-Brexit. Yes, we acknowledge we have a crisis in housebuilding, but if our children can’t get access to education how will we generate the wealth to be able to create homes?

I’m being deliberately dramatic, but you get my point. We need to take this issue seriously, now.

Work is happening, but so far it’s only incremental. The Priority Schools Building Programme which began in 2012 has seen less than 500 new schools or upgrades delivered in its first two phases. A third phase, which would provide the funding for around 350 more, has stalled, presumed missing somewhere in Phillip Hammond’s in-tray.

It’s a gloomy outlook so far, but I don’t think it’s a hopeless one.

Positives from PFI

While the PFI schemes of the Blair-Brown years have been discredited of late, there are positive lessons we can learn from them. Under PFI, full life cycle maintenance was a contractual requirement, maximising the effective lifespan of these buildings. The schools being built now have no maintenance programmes in place. Instead we see headmasters and school governors controlling all funding for their schools, and diverting money possibly intended for essential maintenance to teaching and learning. The Government could and should be stepping in to ensure that the funding mechanism is such that money for maintenance is ring-fenced.

National framework

The ESFA now has an accurate picture of the condition of every publicly-managed school in England and Wales. This is valuable data, which could, given the right political will, be used to underpin a centrally managed, properly costed, national school building and maintenance framework. It would drive efficiencies and eliminate the diversion of funds we see at local level.


The ESFA is doing what it can to “oil the wheels”, by standardising the requirements of all the new schools it funds via its Facilities Output Specification (FOS).

ESFA is also looking to technology and modern construction techniques to help deliver schools in faster time. Offsite construction is increasingly looked on favourably and can deliver improvements quickly, essential to provide capacity with burgeoning class sizes.

Even modular buildings, once no more than lightweight, ‘mobile’ classrooms are now robust, built with concrete floors.

If I could predict what the future for schools building would look like, I would expect a ‘mixed economy’ of sorts, using a hybrid of offsite, modular, and standardisation.

I’d also expect – and hope - that we might be looking beyond the challenge of simply building schools, to making them fully sustainable. It’s mystifying to me that our state schools – the very places where we expect our young people to learn about the world around them – aren’t required to incorporate sustainability features as a matter of course.

Lastly, and significantly, let’s seize the opportunity presented by this admittedly daunting challenge, to do something about another issue we face: the dearth of new entrants to the construction industry. We all bemoan the lack of any effective coordinated industry programme to attract young people to our industry in the numbers we need to ensure its long-term survival. But to my mind there can be no better introduction to this vibrant and fascinating industry than learning about it at school.

Our latest research report, The Secondary School Places Challenge, indicates that an extra 435,646 pupils will be joining the UK’s secondary school system in the next three years, equating to over 14,500 additional secondary classrooms required across the country.

Secondary school pupil numbers are set to rise significantly and there is a real risk that if we do not increase the output of new secondary school classrooms there will be significant pressure on places across the UK. Such is the scale of the projected increase in secondary school pupils that the Government should now seek to develop a National School Building Strategy that brings together the Department of Education, local and regional Government, and industry. We must ensure there is a joined-up approach that embraces modern methods of construction such as modular and offsite techniques, which can deliver schools quickly and cost-effectively.

Mark Robinson, SCAPE Chief Executive

Wates Group are the delivery partner for Major Works UK, part of the SCAPE National Construction framework.

Wates Steve Beechey black and white MD Written by:

Steve Beechey

Group Strategy Director and MD for Government Affairs, Wates Group