Basic repairs could eat up half the school capital budget for this Parliament

Fiona Millar's picture
There has been a lot of speculation on this site about government capital funding for existing and new 'free' schools. This story in last week's Financial Times (  written by usually very reliable and well informed journalists but behind a form of paywall) was revealing. It claims that internal government estimates suggest £8.5 billion is needed simply to fix the backlog of repairs in schools that were not covered by the last government's £55 billion BSF programme.The government's school capital budget for the rest of this Parliament is £16bn.

We know that condition checks have been going on in schools across the country over the past six months and it would appear that these prove many schools  need urgent work to bring them up to a reasonable standard. The story's authors claim that these figures have become a 'source of panic' within the DFE. Not surprising . Building costs are going up above the rate of inflation and, if basic and essential condition work is undertaken, and new primary school places are created in the areas where there is a dire shortage, there won't be much left over to replace the yawning gap left by the abolition of BSF, let alone fund free schools that may not be needed.

The report also suggests that the James Review, set up in the wake of BSF abolition, has been delayed because Michael Gove demanded re-writes of the documents to make them more critical of Labour's record in office. If that is true it indicates an even more petty political streak in Gove than we had suspected. James will apparently announce a new streamlined procurement process and more standardised school design, not necessarily a bad thing if it helps to spread these scarce funds more equally. The real question is how those funds will be prioritised once condition need and new places have been accounted for. One anonymous official in the story is quoted as saying that the failure to get a decent capital settlement for the DFE was the 'critical mistake that will take Gove down'. No wonder he doesn't want to say how much he is spending on free schools.
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Sarah's picture
Thu, 31/03/2011 - 17:37

Fiona - it is certainly true that there is a monumental maintenance backlog in many schools particularly in secondary schools which were waiting for renewal under BSF where major repairs were held back pending replacement or refurbishment projects. The DfE has been collecting data from local authorities in the last few weeks about Basic Need ie the requirement for additional school places as this is clearly an issue. Most authorities undertaken annual or at least regular condition surveys on the school estate so can say with some confidence how much needs to be spent - this is where the £8.5billion figure came from - it was part of an earlier data collection from local authorities by the coalition government before the spending review.

Hints are that the James review may recommend the centralisation of major strategic capital - to allow the government to control access to capital for Academies and Free Schools. It isn't clear what role PfS might have to play in this but they are clearly now taking a role in free schools as they have the new site finder tool on their website. The James Review was supposed to report in December and there is still no sniff of it being published. What I think Gove has failed to appreciate is that simply funding maintenance and basic need is not sufficient. Schools need to adapt and change to developments in the curriculum and in pedagogy as these have an impact on the space needed. There are many schools which have temporary accommodation they need to replace and issues associated with fire safety, legionella, asbestos, health and safety, accessibility and so on that they need to address for the benefit of the children in their care. All of this takes capital investment. Cutting school's devolved capital resources by 80% has left small primary schools with around £6k per year to play with. That wouldn't even pay for a single ramp if they have a disabled child joining them (and there is no longer any accessibility funding given to the LA to address those needs). All in all it is a recipe for crumbling buildings that cannot adapt to the changing educational needs of the children they are accommodating.

Fiona Millar's picture
Thu, 31/03/2011 - 18:36

Thanks Sarah, you are right, it isn't only about basic repairs but many schools would be grateful to know that these will be addressed, given the cuts to devolved capital that you rightly highlight. I would like to see James come up with a simpler procurement process then clear priorities for funding; new school places where there is a demonstrable need ( rather than the flimsy surveys we have seen in evidence for free school bids), then basic repairs and re-furbishment where possible in existing schools that haven't had BSF money, with funds distributed as equitably as possible. There won't be much change from that given the tight budget the DFE is working to, and there shouldn't be any capital promised to schools that aren't needed. It would be a scandal if they are prioritised over the above. We should also be watching carefully to see whether academy conversions get money before maintained schools that require more urgent repairs.

Sarah's picture
Fri, 01/04/2011 - 11:49

After hearing not a whisper about the publication of the James Review I have heard today that it is expected to be signed of by ministers today and published next week. Apparently local authorities will no longer be able to procure large scale school capital projects themselves, this is to be centralised (so much for localism) probably into Partnerships for Schools or a similar replacement body. The argument is supposed to be that it will be better because local authorities are inexperienced as clients - although how that is the case when they have many years experience of procuring schools capital I am unclear!. Centralising the large scale strategic capital funding will make it easier to focus investment on academies and free schools no doubt. The emphasis will be on standardised design and a focus on backlog maintenance and basic need - all attempts at 'educational transformation' are now out of the window. In order to achieve this it is expected that local authorities will go back to the old days of providing central government with data on the condition of school buildings instead of managing this locally (so much for reducing red tape). Area guidelines for school buildings are expected to be reduced by 15% to make it cheaper and also to make it easier for free schools to set up on what would otherwise be considered inadquate buildings - so our children will now have less space in which to learn.

Fiona Millar's picture
Fri, 01/04/2011 - 12:12

Interesting. I wonder who, at the centre, will decide how the money is allocated?

Ros Coffey's picture
Fri, 01/04/2011 - 14:16

I find this deeply depressing - does this mean that all school builds will have to go through really large conglomerates and that we will end up with exactly the same style of school everywhere? Will we have to choose from The Gove - known for it's classically influenced structure, oversized library and Latin rather thanScience laboratory , or The Teather rather small and not necessarily all that good for SEN provision... I could go on.

It can be challenging enough working with an LA on build projects who at least understand the need and the imperative of a build but frankly the thought of dealing with someone who makes slow decisions because they are frightened of being the one who signs it off is just downright scary.

I keep thinking of that old Tom Paxton song Little Boxes... one of the great things about our schools is the varied architecture rather than bland repetition.

Adrian Elliott's picture
Fri, 01/04/2011 - 16:49

One of the schools I work with - an 11-16 comprehensive with over 800 pupils - has lost 80% of its capital funding. Its difficult to reconcile this with protecting front line services. Unless having a roof which isn't leaking is not regarded as front line!

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