School buildings

Government contractors signed off on unsafe £45m schools

DfE admits technical advisers who rubber-stamped buildings now facing demolition were its own contractors

DfE admits technical advisers who rubber-stamped buildings now facing demolition were its own contractors

8 Dec 2023, 12:00

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Government contractors signed-off on three school building projects costing £45 million that will now be demolished and rebuilt over safety concerns.

Sir Frederick Gibberd College, in Essex, Haygrove School, Somerset, and Buckton Fields Primary School, Northampton, will all be rebuilt after surveys found they could not withstand “very high winds or significant snowfall”. Two opened in 2020 and the third in 2021.

The schools were told in August to close their almost-new buildings constructed by Caledonian Modular.

Closures meant a staggered start to term at the schools, with some pupils being temporarily transferred to other school sites.

Gillian Keegan, the education secretary, told MPs this week the projects were “signed-off by both building control and technical advisers, which obviously is something that we’ll be looking at further”.

The DfE later confirmed to Schools Week that the technical advisers were its own contractors. Building control must be signed off either by a local authority or approved private contractor. It is unclear which did so in this case.

Issues ‘should have been discovered’

Tim Warneford, a school building consultant, said the DfE’s advisers “appear to have been asleep on the job”.

“Of course mistakes get made, but if you pick them up early enough you can address them. There are serious questions to be asked about the quality-assurance process.”

Keegan told the Commons Education Committee the issues “should have been discovered by whoever signed-off that building”. She also pledged to “fund the rebuilding of those three schools and we will seek redress from the company who has done a poor job”.

Caledonian Modular went into administration last year. While Susan Acland-Hood, the DfE’s permanent secretary, said it would be “harder against a company that’s gone into administration”, the department will “look really hard at other ways to identify those people”.

Susan Acland-Hood
Susan Acland Hood

Since the three schools were built, the DfE has introduced a new construction framework, which requires firms to appoint a “clerk of works” to carry out further building inspections on behalf of the DfE before sign-off.

Acland-Hood said the DfE had also “gone round and had another look at what we could have done, because again, there’s deep discomfort that this has happened, but particularly as you say, the building control sign-off and the technical adviser sign-off is really concerning”.

The projects used so-called “modern methods of construction”, in particular a modular building approach where elements are built off-site and then assembled.

Official defends modular construction

Acland-Hood defended the approach during the committee hearing this week: “We don’t think that this is about the fact that it was modular. It’s a workmanship problem about how the modules were connected together, rather than a failing in the modules, if that makes sense.

“So, a key thing is that we’ve got the checks going on to make sure that the quality of the workmanship is where it needs to be. It doesn’t raise a question about all modern methods of construction buildings. It is very specific to this company.”

Contracts worth £38 million for the Sir Frederick Gibberd and Haygrove buildings were awarded to Caledonian Modular in 2019 under the DfE’s £3 billion “modern methods of construction” framework.

Under its contract, Caledonian Modular – which went into administration in March 2022 – led design, planning and installation of the schools. The firm was also awarded a £6.5 million contract for building works at Buckton Fields.

Documents filed by administrators on Companies House show the DfE was owed £2 million when Caledonian Modular collapsed. But there were “insufficient funds” to cover unsecured creditors, which included the DfE.

“We are also reviewing our contracts and seeking legal advice on how we can recover the costs where that contractor was involved,” said academies minister Baroness Barran.

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