Centralise school building procurement – sensible or sad?

Another private sector expert has been telling the public sector how it should be running things. Sebastian James is Group Operations Director of Dixons Retail, and was one of David Cameron's mates in the Bullingdon Club at Oxford (not of course that this makes him a bad person. Or indeed a good one).

As Public Service reports:

Sebastian James' 'Review of Education Capital' – which found the Labour government's Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme was wasteful, bureaucratic and misdirected – also suggested that sophisticated designs for schools were not necessary and a more 'flat pack' approach would make more economic sense.

Yes, let's learn from firms like Dixons, McDonald's and budget hotel chains, who have proved so adept at decorating our country with their imaginative buildings, blending in with the local vernacular architecture and offering a treat for the eyes as we happen upon another out of town commercial 'park'.  I know I often visit my local Curry's just to admire the care that has gone into its design, and I can imagine how inspiring it would be to be educated in the White Goods department...

OK, sarcasm is cheap. And of course, if we had a standard design for every school built, with central procurement and a 'flat pack' approach (although that's hardly going to favour SMEs is it) we could save money. Perhaps that is all we can afford as a country now.  Perhaps we have to get used to economy being the number 1, 2 and 3 priorities.

I'm far from being a supporter of Building Schools for the Future, which as James says in the report, managed to combine elements of costly over-centralised bureaucracy with a 'local' approach that made sure there were few economies of scale in the design or procurement phase.  (It's no wonder in retrospect that some very senior officials at the Department of Education were so keen to distance themselves from BSF when I spoke to them about it a few years ago). And projects took far too long, given the "sheer level of paperwork involved in completing all the necessary strategy documents, together with the need for very wide consultation,” as the report says.

But is going quite this far to the other extreme of standardisation the real answer? A high-performing local authority told me about 18 months ago that they could build a well designed school, using local firms, for at least 30% less than the price of a BSF school. Given that is also the saving James has identified, do we need to fully centralise in order to get that level of benefit? Or could we, with a bit of education and spreading of best practice, get the same from an informed but local approach?

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Voices (2)

  1. colin cram:

    There are some strong arguments in favour of centralised procurement of schools.

    Firstly, there is a huge range of capability of teams within local authorities that are responsible for building schools. Building Schools for the Future effectively had to parachute teams of people in to local authorities to support them.

    Secondly, some of the teams may be responsible for the building of a school once in 10 year, or even less frequently. So they will be learning from scratch.

    Thirdly, there is massive duplication, reinventing the wheel in terms of design, managing suppliers etc in the present situation.

    Fourthly, Hampshire County Council have demonstrated with relatively small scale joint activity, i.e. with the experienced HCC team in the lead, that 10 schools can be built for the price of 9 – and with fewer problems.

    Fifthly, with a centralised approach, standardisation and effective management of the supply chain is possible, which should increase the opportunities to take cost out.

    There is enough evidence from what Hampshire is doing to suggest that centralised procurement of schools could effectively enable 10 schools to be built for the price of 8 and, possibly for the price of only 6 or 7. Also, there should be good quality assurance.

    There are arguments against centralisation but I can’t see them stacking up in a comparable way with those for centralisation.

  2. Final Furlong:

    With so many flaws, my 15 year old daughter could have generated a range of reasonable recommendations comparable to those of Cameron’s buddy.

    There’s been a recent influx of senior private sector folk offering their advice and generating ‘reviews’, the most famous of which was Sir Phil Green. His report was pretty much like an Ikea ‘flat-pack’ – standardised, rudimentary, raw materials, with basic instructions, a few screws missing, and one only needs a ‘flat head’ with a hammer to knock it all together.

    Private sector has all of the answers, apparently. It seems that if you’ve recently arrived from the private sector (say, in the last five years), you can be applauded for making even a few minor adjustments (especially if you have a good sponsor) nudging aside those who have implemented significant demonstrable change.

    Private sector’s answer to everything is remarkably simple: commoditise everything.

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