This week the Secretary of State for Education has set out his proposals for the reform of schools capital spending. This included his response to the Review of Education Capital published by Sebastian James on 8 April 2011. 

  • A new school re-building programme, the Priority School Building Programme (PSBP), has been launched. The Secretary of State has described this as a “privately financed school building programme”, to address schools in the “worst condition”. Further details of the programme will emerge in the coming weeks. Individual schools, academies and local authorities are all able to apply for funding. Applications should be made via the Partnerships for Schools’ website between 3 and 14 October 2011. Interested parties can register on the site from 25 July. Applications will be prioritised for funding over the next five years, so any local authority looking to receive funding within that timescale should make an application this year. Applicants will be notified in December 2011 as to whether they have been successful, with the first procurements commencing in early 2012.
  • In addition to the PSBP DfE is providing £500m funding for local authorities to provide additional school places in the current financial year. It is likely that the majority of this money will go towards the provision of primary places as currently this is an area in which many local authorities are struggling with capacity issues.
  • The recommendations of the James Review have been broadly accepted, subject to a consultation process which will focus on the most appropriate model for allocating and prioritising capital, as well as the suggested centralised approach for procurement and project management. The closing date for comments is 11 October 2011.   As expected, the recommendation to move towards greater standardisation of design of school buildings has been accepted.  DfE will also be consulting fully in the autumn on revising school premises regulations and guidance.

Issues for local authorities

1.  How to advance the strongest possible application for PSBP funding

The PSBP is intended to address schools in the worst condition (along with pressing cases of basic need and other ministerial priorities).
 
The application form is prescriptive in terms of the information that needs to be provided. Applications must be supported by data extracted from building condition surveys carried out in the last two years. Applications are unlikely to proceed if the cost of addressing the current condition of the school is less than 30% of the rebuild cost.

Consideration therefore needs to be given to the content of existing building data and whether more detailed and focussed surveys would be beneficial to strengthen a case for funding. The summer holiday period may be an ideal opportunity to do this.

2.  Working with academies, schools and other interested bodies

One of the grey areas that remained after the publication of the James Review related to how “Responsible Bodies” in a particular local authority’s area would work together to allocate  capital.  This week’s announcement confirmed that the local authority will play a lead role in this regard.

In light of the acceptance of the James recommendations, ensuring that a local authority has good relations with each of the Responsible Bodies in its area is important. Local authorities would be well-placed to take the lead in establishing a local Responsible Bodies Forum. 

Note also that the consultation asks whether local authorities will be able to produce a draft Local Investment Plan by Spring 2012.  Being able to respond positively will inevitably confer a head start.

3.  Building Condition Information

The James consultation document indicates that DfE wishes to understand what good quality and current condition data is already held locally.  Local authorities that currently hold a good level of information should ensure that this is made clear to the DfE, given how key this is seen to be.

It also asks what data on local estate conditions should be used.  If a local authority has good data, then clearly a response supporting the use of such data is likely to put you in the best possible position.  If not, then proposals on how this data can be gathered and managed most effectively are likely to be the preferred alternative.

4.  Central or local procurement

The James Review proposes a new central body to conduct procurement and project management of major projects.  Applicants for the PSBP must confirm their agreement that the contract will be procured by a central body.

However, the consultation appears to support local procurement in appropriate circumstances, and there are a number of questions raised about how this will work. 
Local authorities who wish to control their own procurements may need to strike a difficult balance – both arguing their case as part of the consultation, and confirming as part of a funding application under the PSBP that they will agree to central procurement if necessary.

5.  Working with other local authorities

As we set out in our previous alert, Comment on the James Review (8 April 2011), local authorities who have a track record of working jointly with other local authorities are likely to be favoured. Regional Efficiency and Improvement Partnerships are given a particular mention, with alternative regional groupings of local authorities also likely to be favoured.

The consultation asks questions about how projects should be exempt from project management or procurement by a central body.  The James Review itself, of course, spoke about local authorities with a “proven delivery capability” being able to potentially retain the right to self procure.

Local authorities interested in retaining such rights should respond appropriately to the consultation.  A track record should be considered against the types of procurement favoured by DfE.  It is interesting to see that Local Education Partnerships are not specifically mentioned, and it remains to be seen whether or not they will be viewed by DfE as evidence of a proven track record for the purposes of future procurement.

The important announcements this week highlight the need for immediate attention to be given to best serving the needs of the education estate across local authorities and beyond. Action is likely to be needed through the summer both in relation to the James consultation process and the PSBP funding opportunities. We are very happy to discuss your specific local issues and concerns and to share understanding of ongoing developments.