The Department for Education should offer colleges a more flexible deadline for completing capital projects, writes Mark Robinson, chief executive at property services and design company Scape Group

The public sector has enjoyed something of a resurgence in government attention since the arrival of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. For years, the sector has been subject to financial restrictions and ever-diminishing resources. Education has been no exception.

However, the pandemic has caused government to look to the sector as a vehicle for stimulating economic activity – particularly in construction – as the availability of private capital recedes.

For sixth forms and colleges, this is a significant win and what many may consider a timely shot in the arm as the government looks to get spades in the ground, whilst simultaneously upgrading education facilities across the country.

In August, the Department for Education set out plans to fast-track £200 million of infrastructure spend into more than 180 colleges. That funding has now begun to land in college bank accounts across the UK, firing the starter gun on a wave of new projects to help the country “build back better”.

Of those receiving funding, some will no doubt be keen to improve tired learning facilities. For others, it will be about increasing capacity at a time when the challenges of delivering a Covid-secure environment for students are becoming all too apparent.

But while such a sizeable capital injection will always be welcome, it comes caveated with its own conditions that will no doubt require FE leaders to sharpen their pencils.

There is a clear mandate from the top to get spades in the ground

Chief among these are the limitations on the type of work the funding can be used to deliver – any activity must replace or improve “failing” facilities.

Then there’s the timescale. The Department for Education is requesting that projects are completed by the end of next March. For anything beyond small-scale renovations, a six month window leaves very little room for manoeuvre.

This tight timeframe may have partly been suggested because the funding represents an early draw down on the £1.5 billion five year investment plan for further education announced by Rishi Sunak in the Spring Budget.

Given the funding is being taken from an investment pot accounted for over five years, it would seem sensible not to impose such a tight deadline in the short-term and allow some flex into the next financial year so colleges can spend it as efficiently as possible.

That being said, there is a clear mandate from the top to get spades in the ground quickly. Tight timeframes, in the eyes of the government – and, indeed, many economists – are needed to sustain momentum in the construction industry, which has shown signs of slowing in recent weeks.

If colleges are to take advantage of this windfall within the current timeframe, projects will need to be delivered with efficiency while maintaining high standards in build quality.

Direct-award construction and consultancy frameworks are not a new delivery route for educators looking to accelerate their projects, but they can go some way to take full advantage of the £200 million impetus. In essence, direct-award frameworks present a route whereby colleges can be matched with experienced construction partners.

Since the new funding began to land, we’ve noticed a spike in enquiries from colleges and sixth forms. These tend to fall into two camps.

First are those with a firm view on how to spend the money who need support accelerating the procurement process. The second group are those who need help in making sure they invest the money on the right elements of their maintenance backlog.

For example, some are considering whether to use the funding to tackle capacity issues in relation to Covid-19 or to direct it towards upgrading their energy infrastructure, in line with the wider public sector’s commitments to sustainability.

Undoubtedly, we face a difficult winter ahead balancing the needs of public health and the economy. Further education will play a key role in each.

The sector must have the flexibility and necessary support to finish much-needed capital projects within a reasonable framework.