Schools build programme provides lifeline for contractors

Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Schools, Lord Hill of Oareford CBE (second from left), is shown around the new building by representatives from Willmott Dixon, Scape, Oakfield Primary School and Wawickshire County Council.

Midlands’ contractor Willmott Dixon, which has offices in Birmingham and Nottingham, has reported a surge of interest in Britain’s first standardised school, currently under construction in Rugby.

Thirteen local authorities have paid a visit to Oakfield Primary School, including five from the West Midlands. Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Schools, Lord Hill of Oareford CBE, also visited the site in July.

Interest has been prompted by the acute shortage of primary school places across the  region.

Rising birthrates and increased immigration mean that local authorities around the West Midlands are under pressure to build new facilities to address the pupil bulge.

Across the region, an additional 36,578 desks will be needed for the academic year 2014/15. Almost 11,000 of these will be required in Birmingham alone; Coventry is looking at a deficit of around 5,000 places, whilst some 4,000 additional pupils will be added to Staffordshire’s school register.

Additional primary school places required by 2014/15:

Birmingham                                   10,820

Coventry                                           4,909

Staffordshire                                   4,100

Warwickshire                                 3,552

Sandwell                                          3,266

Stoke-on-Trent                              2,655

Worcestershire                              1,904

Walsall                                            1,414

Wolverhampton                            1,216

Shropshire                                      954

Telford and Wrekin                      774

Solihull                                            614

Herefordshire                                400

Total West Midlands:           36,578

Source: figures supplied by relevant local authority

According to Peter Owen, managing director of the Midlands’ office of contractor Willmott Dixon, cash-strapped local authorities are drawing up emergency plans to cope with the unprecedented increase in numbers.

He said: “In the south the position is so dire local authorities are talking about ‘split shifts’ in existing schools, and requisitioning disused shops, warehouses and office blocks for use as school rooms. We are already looking at converting office and retail space for some of our free schools in the Midlands.”

Willmott Dixon is currently building Britain’s first standardised school, Oakfield Primary School in Rugby. The contractor, alongside Scape, a local authority owned procurement company, launched its ‘Sunesis’ product, a series of off-the-shelf designs designed to reduce the cost and construction lead and delivery times, earlier this year.

The £2.2m Oakfield Primary, commissioned by Warwickshire County Council, will help to address the 3,552 shortfall in primary places anticipated across the county and will replace the school’s existing 1950s building.

Peter Owen said: “In the current climate it is no longer possible to deliver bespoke design and build solutions for the public sector. As a result, the interest in our fast-track procurement system has been overwhelming.

“Public sector bodies are also looking to achieve ‘more for less’. The ‘Sunesis’ products includes a choice of four primary schools, from £2,200,000, with build times from 26 weeks. All our offerings benefit from fast cost effective procurement, quick delivery periods and low running costs.”

Willmott Dixon is currently on target to start 30 new primary schools by the end of 2012; the contractor will also deliver eight free schools by September this year.

Mr Owen said: “It’s no secret that the construction sector is contracting. The fall in workloads, new orders and tender prices is testing our industry. By coming up with creative solutions Willmott Dixon is preserving its pipeline and construction jobs.”