The Secondary School Places Challenge: A Time for Modular?

The time is now right for the built environment industry to develop its modular and offsite technologies and to improve its capacity.

Scape Group’s latest research, the Secondary School Places Challenge, reveals that a staggering 435,646 additional pupils will be joining the UK secondary school system by 202021 – the equivalent of 14,522 extra secondary school classrooms or over 400 new schools. The report sets out the scale of the challenge across the country and calls for a National School Building Strategy, to ensure there are enough high-quality school places to accommodate the growing number of pupils.

Having previously led the procurement of education capital projects at Bedford Borough Council, I completely understand the pressures local authorities are under to deliver more school places and the high-quality school buildings or extensions needed to accommodate the growing numbers of pupils in the system. I was so impressed by the work being undertaken by Sunesis, and felt so passionately about the benefits of modular, that I decided to join the organisation to help other local authorities embrace a collaborative and creative way of delivering school places.

A challenge for the industry

This is a national challenge, and we must embrace it nationwide if we are going to deliver the required number of school places. The time is now right for the built environment industry to develop its modular and offsite technologies and to improve its capacity to deliver more complex buildings.

The Autumn Budget confirmed the Government’s commitment to modular for public sector construction. The Government will use its purchasing power to ‘drive adoption of modern methods of construction’, and will adopt a presumption in favour of offsite construction for major departments by 2019 across suitable capital programmes, where it represents best value for money.

This is something of a watershed moment. Modern methods of construction including offsite and modular have been around for many years, but it seems only now the potential benefits are being embraced by Central Government, which could act as a catalyst for change.

Modular construction offers an opportunity to revitalise our school estates across the country and deliver the schools and classrooms needed by 2022. However, there are some important steps to take.

Firstly, we must ensure that the industry has the capacity to deliver more offsite construction and modular buildings at scale. Although offsite construction is increasingly being used by both the public and private sector, there is not yet the critical mass of industry expertise and manufacturing capability to keep up with demand. The Government must use its purchasing power to establish the UK as an international leader in offsite design and build.

Secondly, we need to change perceptions on modular. There is still too often a view of modular as ‘second best’ to the traditional onsite bricks and mortar approach, or as a tactical solution when project timelines are tight. Research and development undertaken to date means that offsite already delivers equivalent, if not superior outcomes.

A time for modular

One of the true benefits of modular construction is the ability to design buildings more efficiently so that they can be used as multi-functional spaces. It is perfectly possible to combine a new school with a community centre, library or any other public building, delivering efficiencies for the public sector at every stage of the process – the land, the design and build, and the long-term running costs. In this way, modular can help public sector organisations, and particularly local authorities, to deliver more for their communities.

Modular construction methods offer a quick and cost-effective solution to the secondary school places challenge facing the country, and it is essential that this is embraced immediately by government and the industry. However, across the public sector, in health, blue light, defence and justice, as well as housing, there is enormous potential for modular to revolutionise the public-sector estate and to help deliver more for less. Local authorities too must seize the opportunity.

Fran Cox Operations Director

Do you need to find solutions to your school places demand? Call our team on 07950 717 804 or email