Schools

New special schools languish as contractors flounder 

The schools include two built by failed firm Caledonian Modular, which DfE has launched an investigation into over safety issues

The schools include two built by failed firm Caledonian Modular, which DfE has launched an investigation into over safety issues

11 Sep 2023, 5:00

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Buildings at three almost-new schools will be demolished due to safety concerns

The DfE is yet to find construction companies for four new special schools after two contracted to do the work collapsed, one 18 months ago.

Caledonian Modular fell into administration in April 2022. It emerged last month three schools built by the company had to close, with some delaying the start of term while they found alternative classrooms.

Surveyors expressed fears that the sites at Haygrove School in Somerset, Sir Frederick Gibberd College in Essex, and Buckton Fields Primary School in Northampton would not be able to withstand “very high winds or significant snowfall”. 

Two other schools in which work was started in 2021 – Newquay Primary Academy and Launceston Primary Academy in Cornwall – were demolished in spring after the government identified “defects”. 

Kier Construction has been appointed to rebuild Newquay. Its pupils are currently educated in “adapted” accommodation at Newquay Sports Centre.

But the DfE is yet confirm if a new contractor has been appointed to rebuild Launceston.

Contracts for two special schools contracted to Caledonian – Greenwell Academy in Essex and River Tees Academy Grangetown in Middlesbrough – are also yet to be awarded to another company.

Second modular building firm collapsed

Meanwhile, work at two other special schools contracted to Eco Modular – which has also collapsed – are still to be retendered.

Schools Week last year revealed a crises in special school places, with more than half of the schools having more pupils on roll than the number commissioned by their council.

It is also likely to heap further pressure on the DfE at a time when it is facing widespread criticism over its response to the RAAC crisis

Munira Wilson, the Lib Dem’s education spokesperson, said: “When crumbling classrooms nationwide are being shut, it is beyond belief that the government can’t even finish building the new schools that it has promised.”

Caledonian is understood to have been commissioned for work at 10 school sites, under contracts totalling more than £66 million.

That included a contract worth just over £544,000 for construction at Greenwell, which was due to open in a permanent building this month.

Dr Jonty Clark, chief executive of The Beckmead Trust – which runs Greenwell – said there were 16 pupils at its temporary site at Beckmead Moundwood Academy. It was due to have 64 on roll.

According to contracts published this year, the DfE has paid out just over £682,000 to Portakabin for temporary buildings. 

It is now hoped the academy will move to a permanent site in September 2025, though client engagement meetings are still taking place. 

Challenge to open schools with fewer pupils

“One of the difficulties in starting with a school on slow fill is…you’ve only got a certain amount of income. So trying to provide an adequate curriculum across the school for everybody is quite challenging,” Clark said.

But the trust had felt “very supported” by the DfE.

Rivers Tees Academy was due to open on its permanent site for 100 pupils last September, but is instead educating 32 in temporary accommodation. Its new building is set to be ready for March next year.

However, Christina Jones, chief executive of the River Tees Multi-Academy Trust, said the building was still “going through tender again”.

The DfE has not said how much Caledonian Modular has received and whether it recovered any of the cash.

It has launched an investigation, but has yet to clarify its scope. The Modular and Portable Building Association (MPBA) said the situation was “not indicative of our sector”.

‘It’s the perfect storm’

Eco Modular, the second company contracted under the government’s £3 billion offsite schools framework – where buildings are part-made elsewhere and then assembled on-site, fell into administration in March this year.

It was awarded an £8.1 million contract to build The Flagship School, another Beckmead special school in East Sussex, which was due to open last September.

Clark said about 90 per cent of the work had been finished. Walker Construction has been given £291,000 for temporary buildings at the site. 

The school is open to 58 pupils, as opposed to the intended 65, while the Eco Modular construction is currently off-limits for education.

“Nobody’s going to come in and pick up a marginless building and have that level of liability. It’s the perfect storm really,” Clark said.

Tim Warneford, an academy funding consultant, said delays in finding new contractors could partly be due to many filling their order books “long in advance”.

Brexit-related labour shortages and rises in the cost of materials could also put companies off builds with limited profit margins. 

The DfE did not respond to a request for comment.

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