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Byles: PfS staff exodus risk to school procurement

As the government launched a £2 billion school building programme, former Partnerships for Schools chief executive Tim Byles has warned of the “very real risk” of a damaging exodus of skilled procurement staff.

Education secretary Michael Gove last month announced that the schools capital delivery body would be abolished in April 2012. Since then, his department has launched a new building programme, as an early response to the James Review.

Under Cabinet Office rules, most PfS staff will be eligible to transfer to its replacement, the Education Funding Agency, which will sit within the Department for Education. But Construction News revealed last month that many key members of staff, including several within the procurement team, were considering looking for work elsewhere.

Speaking to CN prior to Gove’s launch of the new programme, Mr Byles said: “A staff exodus is a very real risk. The government has decided how it wants to organise things for the future, and while I understand the logic, I don’t think it is the best solution for capital. You need the right blend of private and public sector skills, and management of risk in a commercial context.

“This cannot be achieved in the civil service, which is necessarily established to avoid risk rather than to manage it.”

PfS was established in 2004 and tasked with running the now abolished £55 billion Building Schools for the Future programme.

In 2009, it was given responsibility for delivering all schools capital investment programmes including the government’s flagship free schools project.
UK Contractors Group director Stephen Ratcliffe told CN: “The last thing we need is the limited amount of capital procurement experience in the public sector further reduced. If you lose the project management skills PfS has then you risk delays coming back along with legal claims and all the usual things that happen when a client doesn’t know what it is doing.”

Mr Byles said this week: “What excites the people at PfS is working on tangible projects with the public and private sectors, which will be more difficult in the EFA. This is why people are thinking about where they want to be in the medium term. The risk is a loss of expertise that took a lot of time to build up.”

Mr Byles said the EFA would work well as a commissioning body, but would have to work with external delivery partners to be effective. “I know people are thinking about that process,” he said. “There will always be uncertainties during a time of transition; the important thing is to ensure that delivery is managed by people that know how to deliver.”

He said the last year - since BSF was scrapped - had been “challenging” and that adjusting to the coalition government’s regime had “not been easy”.
But he insisted: “We have emerged working closely together and it has been a pleasure to work so closely with the secretary of state in that period.”