Cost effective, great schools at pace

In 2010 the Government abandoned the Building Schools for the Future programme on the grounds that it offered poor value for money and was failing to deliver high quality school buildings on time and on budget. However, there continues to be a substantial shortfall of school places despite the Government’s efforts to increase provision through the free schools programme. Against this backdrop, Reform and Galliford Try held a roundtable discussion about the delivery of future capital spending with Mike Green, Director of Capital at the Education Funding Agency.

Leading the discussion, Mike Green proposed the focus of school capital expenditure should be on the delivery of “sufficient, cost effective great schools at pace”. With rising demand for places and reduced capital expenditure budgets, there is an urgent need to achieve more for less. The Government’s review of school capital expenditure led by Sebastian James has recommended that schools adopt a set of standardised designs that incorporate the latest thinking on school environments and educational design. As Mike Green reflected, the standardisation of construction and design would allow more schools to be delivered at better quality, at lower cost and at greater speed.

In the current financial climate improving the flow of funding and giving schools greater freedom to make decisions on investments is paramount. Philip Avery, Assistant Head teacher at Bohunt School, explained that in many cases local authorities still had the power to make funding decisions on behalf of academies and free schools despite having no authority over them. There were concerns that initial capital outlays were preventing the free schools programme from reaching its full potential and a lack of clarity about how funding was allocated to approved free schools. Rachel Wolf, Director at the New Schools Network, commented that there was “relatively little rhyme or reason about who got how much money” making it difficult for schools to determine what infrastructure they could afford.

With public finance for capital expenditure likely to remain constrained, attracting funding from new sources will be critical. Michael Buchanan, Education Director at Galliford Try, highlighted that the sustainability of any capital investment programme will rely on the issue of securing long term funding for existing and new schools. Giving schools greater flexibility to obtain funding will allow them to develop and grow. As Neil Carmichael MP argued, it was necessary to “find ways where our schools, especially academies and free schools, can actually attract and leverage in other sources of money without any difficulty, without the kind of obstructions and processes that traditionally have really bedevilled schools in the state sector.”

Once funding has been secured, the Government has argued that the standardisation of school buildings will maximise value from investments and allow more schools to built quickly. However Inigo Woolf, Acting Director of Education at the London Diocesan Board for Schools, highlighted that the idea of standardisation was at odds with providing a tailored approach to education that the Government has aspired to. School buildings needed to be designed to the requirements of students and aligned to what the curriculum was trying to achieve. The option of having standard components that make up a “kit of parts”, as opposed to completely standardised designs, could provide flexibility whilst addressing issues of cost and pace. Using standard components could also assist with increasing the quality of existing school buildings and directing resources to schools most in need of repair and refurbishment. The Building Survey Programme currently being undertaken by the Government will list schools by their condition and allow funds to be distributed based on need.

To offer value for money any future capital investment projects will need to demonstrate that initial levels of quality can be sustained over time. Julian Wood, Director of Value for Money at the National Audit Office, raised the idea of the whole life cost of school buildings and the importance of minimising expenditure further down the line by getting the build right first time round. From an industry point of view James Armitage, Managing Director of the Building Division at Galliford Try, and Michael Olliff, Group Director at Scott Brownrigg architects, commented that ongoing value relied on receiving feedback about what worked and what needed to be refined.

The delivery of educational infrastructure will be about getting the balance right between achieving value for money, quality and increasing pace of provision. Whilst a degree of standardisation will be necessary to drive down costs, schools will require some flexibility to choose what is most appropriate for them. It is the Government’s role to make sure that regulation and legislation allows this to happen.