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Schools crisis: former RIBA president calls for return of PFI to fund rebuilding

Former RIBA president Jack Pringle has called for a return to private finance initiatives (PFI) to fund a huge school building programme to prevent a repeat of the current crisis

Pringle, who was a fierce critic of the PFI procurement method because of its failure to prioritise design, said a remodelled system could leverage billions of pounds of private wealth to help construct a 'quality public estate'.

His comments come as more than 150 schools in England were forced to shut, or partially shut after they were found to include Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (RAAC) – a lightweight form of concrete with a short lifespan.

He told the AJ: 'There are trillions of pounds or dollars worth of private wealth looking for a decent long-term return in a tricky depressed market.


'We need – and I can hardly believe I of all people am saying this – a new PFI, a smarter PFI, to put private wealth to work to build the public [estate].'

He added: 'But, this time, we need to get it right. No stupid, expensive tendering procedures where the best IT and FM proposals win alongside an awful building design, and no exorbitant, inflexible 20-year maintenance regimes.'

However, before a major multibillion pound rebuild drive, Pringle believes the government first needs to mobilise an industry-led task force 'to mitigate or repair the [current] failures' and then shake-up the UK's product and materials testing system by creating a 'publicly owned body not subject to commercial pressures'.

According to Pringle, the current crisis with RAAC in schools follows a 'long line of building failures' such as asbestos, the large panel system used at buildings like Ronan Point and the combustible material used on the Grenfell Tower.

He added: 'The common factors have been innovative products in the pursuit of economy or speed, which have not been tested properly. This calls into question our use of the Building Research Establishment (BRE) and British Board of Agrement (BBA) product certification systems which are both private sector enterprises.'


Pringle suggested a ‘strict, but innovative, certification system’ like in aviation, where the overseeing authorities are publicly owned.

Meanwhile, a number of commentators have suggested the current crisis could have been averted if Michael Gove, when he was education secretary, had not decided to scrap the £55 billion Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme shortly after the coalition government was formed in 2010.

Gove binned the mammoth project, which aimed to rebuild or refurbish every secondary school in England over a 15-to-20-year period and had been introduced by the previous Labour administration.

Gove himself later admitted the way the improvement plans for 719 schools were abolished was 'one of [my] worst mistakes in politics'.

Another former RIBA president, Sunand Prasad, believes a 'reinvented BSF [was] badly needed' and that 'underinvesting ends up costing more' (see full comment at bottom).

Chris Boyce, founding director of Assorted Skills + Talents*, who worked on schools projects while at Capita (Symonds), agreed: 'The planned maintained and deep refurbishment projects from both BSF and the academy programmes could have avoided this panicky reaction.

'We have lost 13 years of investment in ageing schools. What a lack of respect for the next generation.'

He added: 'This time we can’t just blame the product – some of the RAAC buildings are more than 50 years old. Don’t believe any spin that it’s the material to blame.

'It’s a bit like deciding not to change a tyre that’s worn to the wire, and then whining about the tyre when it blows, blaming the rubber as you skid towards your death.'

Earlier this week, former civil servant Jonathan Slater claimed that, while chancellor, Rishi Sunak slashed the government budget for school repairs in England by half in 2021 meaning only 50, rather than 100, schools could be refurbished every year.

The claim was denied by Sunak who said it was 'completely and utterly wrong' to suggest he was to blame for failing to fully fund the rebuild programme. On Sunday, current chancellor Jeremy Hunt promised to 'spend what it takes' to deal with the crumbling concrete crisis.

In June, the Department for Education (DfE) said it was allocating £459 million for upgrades to 859 academies, sixth-form colleges and voluntary aided schools.

But the RIBA said the funding did not go far enough and was ‘a small proportion of the amount needed’ to fix England’s schools, many of which he claimed were in ‘serious disrepair’.

A separate financial report released by the DfE in December found ‘a risk of collapse of one or more blocks in some schools’ – mainly those built between 1945 and 1970 using ‘system build’ light frame techniques.

The AJ understands that the BRE has only tested RAAC as a product. The BBA has been contacted for comment.


Sunand Prasad, former RIBA president and chair of the UK Green Building Council

England’s public estate has been chronically underinvested in since the 1970s. The spending has been viewed as cost rather than investment.  The slogan for the RAAC-based Best Buy hospitals – seven of which are in a critical state – was “Two for the price of one!”.

BSF, the early 2000s hospital building programme and, hopefully, the New Hospital Programme are the reactive exceptions to this underinvestment. BSF was exceptional in demonstrating the ambition that we need.

It aimed to rebuild or refurbish every secondary school in England over 15-to-20 years. That would have been around 3,600 schools.

A much smaller amount of funding was found for the 16,000 plus primary schools, now most affected by the emergency closures.

There were mistakes with BSF but nothing that could not have been corrected

BSF was recognition that taking care of the social infrastructure is the soundest and most productive investment a government can make; and equally that underinvesting ends up costing more.

There were mistakes but nothing that could not have been corrected, particularly the doctrinaire approach to PFI and public procurement that the RIBA’s Smart PFI model tried to untangle.

A reinvented BSF is badly needed but less centralised, with local authorities empowered but also helped and enabled to be smart clients, taking advantage of the massive learning from the last 25 years of design, construction and procurement, focusing on retrofit and demonstrating how net-zero and circular design can be achieved.

Ruth Reed, former RIBA president

Political memories are always short but it seems there were plenty who knew this crisis was coming and it is inexcusable that there is now a risk to life.

At the beginning of the century, the BSF programme led with design not cost. It was an opportunity address the short design life, capital cost-cutting of the 1970s. It seems all the more tragic now that Michael Gove cancelled the programme, slandering the profession as he did so.

Pierre Wassenaar, director, Stride Treglown

When one looks at the June 2023 National Audit Office report on DFE spending on schools, the picture that emerges is of a department doing its best across a complex and highly autonomous estate, with significant funding issues forcing it to make short-term mitigations, which aren’t necessarily the best long-term solutions.

However, over the last few years, real progress has at least been made in understanding the existing estate. The reduction in funding over the last two school building programmes (PSBP and SRP) have put into sharp focus what the core fundamentals of a good learning environment are.

In a changing complex world where we need children to resolve the problems of the 21st century, funding needs enhancing to go above and beyond these core requirements. There is a need to loosen the shackles of designing to meet minimum standards and safeguard funding for high-quality environments.

This doesn't mean less regulation, but it does mean enabling decision-makers the flexibility of spend to achieve this. If we want UK schools to be high performing in the Better Life index, we need to aspire to Norway or New Zealand levels of spend.

Overall it feels like this is a ‘stitch in time’ problem, where a lack of adequate year-on-year funding means we have not been investing in long term solutions that are technically available: buildings built with durable materials, that provide a sense of belonging and identity through the integration of arts, a connection with landscape, inspiring internal environments and bespoke outcomes where they require it.

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