Seeks to rationalise and streamline Capital

School Planning system too complex  and hostile


Sebastian James of Dixons has just completed the Review of Capital Funding for the Government

In July 2010, the Government launched a comprehensive review of all capital  investment funded by the Department for Education (the James Review). The purpose of the Review was to consider, in the context of the Government’s fiscal consolidation plans and emerging policy, the Department for Education’s existing capital expenditure and make recommendations on the future delivery models for capital investment for 2011-12 onwards. The overall aim of the Review was to ensure that future capital investment will provide good value for money and strongly support the Government’s ambitions to reduce the deficit, raise standards, tackle disadvantage, address building condition and meet the requirement for school places resulting from an increase in the birth rate.

The main issues identified are:

i. The capital allocation process is complex, time consuming, expensive and opaque.  In most cases, decisions are not based on objective criteria   which are consistently applied and do not succeed in targeting money   efficiently to where it is needed. There are too many different approaches across the various programmes and keynote programmes such as Building Schools for the Future had an approach that, with hindsight, was expensive and did not get to schools with the greatest need fast enough.

ii. The design and procurement process for the Building Schools for the Future programme (and other strategic programmes) was not designed to create either high and consistent quality or low cost. Procurement starts with a sum of money rather than with a specification, designs are far too bespoke, and there is no evidence of an effective way of learning from mistakes (or successes).

iii. A lack of expertise on the client side meant that there was little opportunity to improve building methods in order to lower costs over time, especially for very large and complex Building Schools for the  Future projects. The main clients for contracting companies were Local Authorities and head teachers. As a result, despite many hundreds of schools being addressed by the Building Schools for the Future programme, central mechanisms to engineer better solutions were too weak and Partnerships for Schools did not have enough authority to make this happen effectively.

iv. Devolved funding processes did not deliver efficiently the objectives that they were established to achieve. Multiple funding streams diverted funds to those most adept at winning bids rather than necessarily to those in most need. There was little tracking of how money was spent and wide variations in outcome for the same money invested in similar projects.

v. Maintenance is critical to controlling the lifetime cost of schools and the quality of maintenance across the estate is extremely variable. This is exacerbated by the fact that no good quality data is collected on the condition of the estate.

vi. The regulatory and planning environment is far too complex and hostile for building schools. The individual nature of the buildings that have been built historically also meant that every project had to run the gauntlet of these regulations.

The report highlighted five key points

i. There should be a clear and agreed goal for capital expenditure in England: to create enough fit-for-purpose school places to meet the needs of every child. Currently there is considerable ambiguity as to the goals of capital spend.

ii. Capital allocation should be determined using objective information on need for pupil places and on the condition of the local estate. At a local level this notional budget should be turned into a light-touch local plan to achieve the overall goals of the investment. Currently, there is no information held centrally on the condition of the estate and different Responsible Bodies receive capital in different ways.

iii. New buildings should be based on a clear set of standardised drawings and specifications that will incorporate the latest thinking on educational requirements and the bulk of regulatory needs. This will allow for continuous learning to improve quality and reduce cost. Currently the bulk of new schools are designed from scratch with significant negative consequences on time, cost and quality.

iv. There must be a single, strong, expert, intelligent ‘client’ acting for the public sector in its relationships with the construction industry and responsible for both the design and the delivery of larger projects. This body must be accountable for the delivery of buildings on time and to the right budget and quality standards. This is a philosophical shift in approach as it would mean that the Department for Education will deliver not money, but rather a building to meet local needs. Currently, the Department for Education supplies money to the Responsible Body and the principal accountability for delivery lies with them.

v. Responsible Bodies should be accountable for the maintenance of the  facilities they own and manage, as these facilities are their tools to use in support of education and the provision of services. That means they  have a long-term responsibility to maintain their own facilities as well as  to work together in a local area to ensure the education estate meets or  exceeds the needs of local children. Currently there is no explicit  obligation to maintain buildings and no agreed standard. Funds are wholly devolved to school level making it impossible for Responsible  Bodies to prioritise their needs at a local level.

A Summary of the reports main recommendations are included in Appendix A of the report


Among its Recommendations

The review suggests that savings in both time and money of up to 30 per cent 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 would probably 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 centre and that a centrally retained budget should be set aside for them. So funding will be handed out at the government’s discretion. It is unclear how much of the total DFE capital building budget will be allocated,  for Free schools or indeed how the decisions to spend it will be taken.. A shortage of funding for Free schools is acting as a significant obstacle to their expansion.

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. (not supported by RIBA)

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.

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