Over the past 10-12 years I have been involved in several large school capital projects and I now have oversight of a mixed school estate that comprises 5 schools ranging from a brand-new Free School to a 1930s building that is in sore need of internal and external refurbishment.
There is an awful lot in the press at the moment about a ‘school funding crisis’ and we have seen heads and governors deciding to reduce the length of the teaching week or teachers even taking pay cuts to save jobs. As a School Resource Management Advisor (SRMA), I believe that before taking such drastic action, schools should seek advice and make sure that there is absolutely no possibility to make economies or efficiencies, whilst maintaining the quality of education. However, one area that I genuinely believe the government should target funding is for capital improvement and the school estate in general. It is undeniable that the capital funding available to schools directly (DFC) was cut by 80%. The growth in the pupil population in recent years means that capital investment has been targeted to new provision.
Until this year, our multi-academy trust had to bid for Condition Improvement Funding to carry out projects in our older buildings. We have been successful, but preparing a bid is time consuming and not guaranteed. The funding is prioritised to keep buildings safe and in good working order including addressing health and safety issues, building compliance and poor building condition. We are now large enough to receive the School Condition Allocation to address these issues which is a guaranteed sum based on pupil numbers. It will allow us to plan more effectively, but its prime purpose remains to maintain and improve the condition of our schools, so that children can learn in a safe and effective environment. It is a long way from the ambitions of the Building Schools for the Future Programme (which ended in 2010) to rebuild, refurbish and provide new Information Technology for all 3,500 secondary schools in England by 2020.
How we continue to improve the school estate with reduced resources is a key question. A few months ago, I carried out a research call with the DfE about the use of operating leases to procure school buildings. This was a new concept to me, until a fellow Chief Operating Officer (COO) mentioned that their trust had secured a new building through this route. The DfE research was exploring the opportunities and threats of this approach. As a COO with a mixed school estate and buildings that we would dearly love to carry out extensive refurbishment on, I would be interested in finding out more about this. I think that care would need to be taken to make sure such projects were value for money; no one would want to see the mistakes of the old Private Finance Initiatives replicated here!
I was also, interested to read this article the other week about LocatEd’s pilot scheme to sell school sites to fund improvements. The aim of the pilot is to sell surplus land for housing and for the proceeds to be used to fund school building improvement projects and would meet two objectives – creating more housing and improving the condition of schools. Whilst I am sure that some will feel uncomfortable about this, the intention is to identify surplus land, rather than restricting usable outside space. I think care needs to be taken to make sure that initiatives like this don’t create an uneven playing field in the improvement stakes, but this approach is not unprecedented as this press release from 2012 indicates.
I think academy trusts as well as local authorities are well-placed to identify opportunities and direct resource to those schools that are in most need of improved facilities. The School Business Professional has part to play in researching new ways of accessing funding.