England & Wales Education and children's services

James Review of Education Capital

click on the image to read the full CSN briefing (£)

The Review of Education Capital (pdf), led by Sebastian James was originally intended to produce an interim report in September, with a forward plan for the funding period by the end of 2010; that seems an unrealistic timescale, and it has taken much longer – in part to enable some piloting of emerging findings.

Nobody will be surprised by the finding that Building Schools for the Future (BSF) was well intentioned but hopelessly complex and bureaucratic, and therefore wasteful of time and money. What is perhaps more shocking is the report’s consistent theme that, for a long period, capital expenditure on schools has lacked a clear, coherent, objective and evidence-based foundation, with confused accountabilities (especially for maintenance) and little opportunity for learning from experience. The review identifies a number of areas in which a simpler, more coherent approach, with a rigorous focus on value for money, could lead to significant gains whilst improving the quality of the end product (the consensus estimate from the workshops is that a cost saving of 30% could be achieved).

However, Mr James is surely right to suggest that some of the review’s recommendations will require ‘significant further discussion’. Its emphasis on fitness for purpose of school buildings has been welcomed, but the greater use of standardised designs has provoked warnings of ‘identikit’ schools, and resulting limitations on developing buildings for shared use. And fears have been expressed that Ministers will continue to direct disproportionate funds towards their favoured projects (such as Free Schools) with resulting inefficiencies and piecemeal development. But the main concern is likely to arise from the changes in roles and relationships brought about by the core proposals: for a new ‘Central Body’ (in effect, a significantly beefed-up Partnership for Schools) through which the DfE would deliver not funding, but the buildings to meet locally agreed needs; for a new local process, involving all ‘Responsible Bodies’ in agreeing a local investment plan of priorities for major projects and maintenance against the notional local budget; and for the aggregation of devolved capital to Responsible Bodies, for distribution to their individual institutions.

The report’s analysis of the present system’s failings makes a strong case for change but, when all the talk is of localism and school autonomy, many (possibly including the Secretary of State) will take some convincing that the solution proposed is not an unduly centralising measure. The challenge lies in finding a balance, and a structure, that will deliver the benefits identified by the review whilst enabling an appropriate level of local involvement.

This post is based on a LGiU members briefing written by Martin Rogers. Briefings are accessible to all officers and elected members of our member authorities. For more information on joining the Local Government Information Unit please follow this link