Sebastian James has published his, much delayed, review of capital funding for schools in England. The review covers Building Schools for the Future and Devolved and Targeted school capital programmes, and makes recommendations for capital delivery models for 2011-12 onwards. It is highly critical of the BSF process and also criticises much about the devolved and targeted capital programmes. It states that the capital allocation process is complex, expensive and time consuming, and has not targeted money where it is most needed; concluding that there is a need for reform throughout the system.
The research undertaken for this report has demonstrated that each of these funding routes is flawed and that there are significant opportunities to reform and simplify the system in order to remove waste and bureaucracy.
Building Schools for the Future
Launched in 2003, the BSF programme had the aim of rebuilding or refurbishing all the secondary schools in England by 2020 and was expected to cost £45 billion. The deadline was later pushed back to 2023 and the expected cost raised to £55 billion. The Government cancelled the programme in July 2010 and by November 2010 approximately eight percent of the planned school projects had been achieved.
The review states that BSF was "not designed to create either high and consistent quality or low cost" as it was took a set sum of money as its design starting point rather than a required specification. It is also critical of the programme's aims of delivering 'Educational Transformation', citing evidence to show there to be no consistent definition of what this term actually means, and the fact that dilapidation of the school estate was not a core criteria for prioritising BSF funding.
According to the review the number of project approval phases and documentation in the BSF programme meant projects could take up to four years before construction could start and the bidding process could cost the Local Authority Partnership up to £10.9 million. The lack of consistency in design and approach meant that it was impossible to benefit from cost reduction and learning.
BSF was an ambitious programme whose overarching aim to replace the ageing school estate cannot be reproached. However, the processes, lack of clarity of goals, unclear accountabilities, and structural lack of ability to learn from experience, meant that projects were complex, expensive, long, and onerous to the education professionals involved.
Devolved and Targeted Capital Funding
The nature of non-BSF capital funding is criticised for being allocated on the basis of poor quality data. After 2005 assessment of the condition of the school estate was abandoned, so there is currently no reliable information on which to base capital allocations for maintenance. The review also suggests that the lack of information on how schools spend their capital funding (no mentioned is made of the Consistent Financial Reporting returns) means that it is impossible to monitor for improvement. Mr James also says that most schools have an ad-hoc approach to funding and sustaining ICT, and this school-led approach has resulted in wide variation in procurement and limited the ability to achieve value for money.
The review suggests that savings in both time and money of up to 30 percent could be made in the schools capital funding process. The review calls for a centralised approach to capital funding and an end to multiple funding streams of investment. It says that allocations should be based on objective facts and data, and that a single capital budget be allocated to local authorities on the basis of local need. These priorities should be agreed on the basis of a Local Investment Plan, which should be based on a template supplied by the Government. It also recommends that the process be significantly flexible to allow several local authorities to work together to create a Local Investment Plan.
Capital funding may be allocated directly to academy chains rather than to the local authority. It is recommended that devolved formula capital allocations are aggregated and given to local authorities or academy chains rather than individual schools, however, for individual academies (converting or not in a chain) funding would be devolved directly to the school. If this recommendation was to be approved it may encourage even more schools to seek academy status as a way of ensuring future capital funding. For Free Schools, the review recommends that they are funded from the centrally and that a centrally retained budget should be set aside for them.
For future new build programmes the review recommends that a set of standardised drawings and specifications is used as a way of reducing costs, stating that it is their belief that best practice can be codified. It is recommended that these specifications are continuously improved through post occupancy evaluation.
The review also calls for the establishment of a Central Body for school procurement, who would be responsible for negotiating and monitoring contracts. The model would allow for other bodies, such as local authorities and academy chains to earn the ability to procure independently.
For ICT the review recommends that the Government ensures a clear broadband service for schools and says that their needs to be a clear ICT funding allocation model for new build or refurbishment projects. It suggests the use of an ICT Services Framework, the introduction of a web-based price comparison catalogue to enable "virtual aggregation" (which sounds similar to the former Government's OPEN system) and that the Government should procure a central framework for school MIS.
Michael Gove responded to the review by saying:
I thank Sebastian James and his Review team for their incredibly hard work and Partnerships for Schools for their help with the Review. I welcome this independent report and we will respond soon. The system we inherited had profound problems. We must have a system for school building which is much simpler, less bureaucratic, and which targets priority projects.
You can download the full report here: