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Frameworks and direct award key to supporting underfunded education sector

The education sector is well versed in procuring built environment work. However, current market constraints, the latest statistics on the level of work needed across school estates and the lack of associated funding means that it will not be an easy road for many. Emma Hesbrook, regional manager at national framework provider Pagabo, discusses how compliant procurement through frameworks and a direct award approach can support schools with their building programmes.

61 schools have been announced this month as successful in securing funding from the government’s school rebuilding programme. Although, this number is a drop in the ocean when compared to the fact that 1,105 schools applied for support within a short four-week window earlier this year.

With the Department for Education (DfE) planning to support 500 projects in the next decade, that means more than half of this batch of applicants are likely to miss out on funding altogether – and considering the DfE has previously revealed that more than £11Bn of repair work is needed across England’s schools, this is significantly short of what is needed.

To qualify for this latest allocation of funding, schools had to demonstrate that they had at least 1,200 square metres of ‘severe condition need’ to apply. The government has quite rightly prioritised applications with ‘structural or safety issues that pose risk to users’, followed by those showing ‘severe deterioration’ in external walls, roofs, windows or doors, or those with mechanical and electrical systems ‘close to failure’.

However, outside of these categories there are thousands of schools that require refurbishment work that are just as important. As well as maintenance, another consideration is the drive towards net zero. Almost 70 per cent of schools around the country comprise of buildings from before the 2000s – with 20 per cent dating back to the first half of the 20th century or even earlier.

There are no prizes for guessing when education providers prefer – or rely on – construction work to be undertaken considering that summer offers the largest annual window in which sites are significantly quieter. Post-covid, summer has provided an ideal concentrated timespan to get building work, critical repair or maintenance work done.

With such a significant number of schools needing work and likely to miss out on funding, it’s fair to assume that next summer will be busier than ever with summer works – and we may see a marked increase in works during term time as well.

When it comes to carrying out education projects in recent months, we have seen an increase in contractors turning projects off and turning their backs on expensive bidding opportunities. This comes as no real surprise when considering the backdrop of rising costs, and materials and labour shortages across the construction industry – but it has given the direct award process a new lease of life in the procurement realm.

We know that clients have existing supply chain relationships, which must be nurtured. While framework providers are capable of consulting and opening up a network of compliant suppliers, there is intangible value found in building on existing collaboration, which direct award can allow.

The direct award approach is one that can work for both low and high-value projects, offering benefits including greater cost and programme certainty, tailored social value outcomes and no stressful or costly bidding process. It also allows for a quick turnaround for supplier appointment, without compensating on compliance checks.

One such example of a recent scheme that maximised the benefits of the direct award process is Nottingham College. The team approached us in April for a low value project to be completed this summer. The expression of interest went to market via our DPS and Medium Works framework, but with suppliers oversubscribed with work to assign the necessary bidding resource to the project, a direct award was suggested.

Local contractor J Tomlinson was appointed quickly via direct award, getting the project on track and on site within weeks – and is now making excellent progress against the original programme timetable.

Schools craft our experts of tomorrow and without the best environments, pupils’ learning experience will be impacted. This is why it’s so important that the built environment sector looks to support schools with creating those excellent environments, and while funding continues to fall short for schools, we must champion tactics like direct award to help schools in creating the environments they need however and where we can.

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