Cashing in on Education

6 Jul 2011 - Viewpoint

By Yasmin Shariff 6 July 2011  ICO conference centre

DSA director, Yasmin Shariff reports from a conference on implementation of the James Review Proposals.

Capital investment in Education is being transformed. In July last year Gove announced a complete overhaul of England’s school and that he was making tough, immediate decisions to help get the best value for money. A year on BSF has been abandoned, funding for CABE to support BSF has been terminated, PfS’s technical advice will continue until April 2012 and after that it will be absorbed by the Education Funding Agency.

The City and Financial conference on the implementation of the James Review Proposals last Wednesday was premature. Government has still not made its pronouncement on the James Review of Education. The fact City and Financial organised the conference on Sebastian James’ Review of Education Capital where tickets for ordinary punters were over £500 says it all. The only people who could afford to attend and hear James and the new interim Chief Executive of PfS, Ruth Thomson, about proposed changes in Government policy were the big spenders in big society‐ Councils, PFI & Framework contactors, LEPs and investment companies‐ a bit rich for a conference that was meant to be about saving money. It would be more accurate to describe the event as exploring ways of cashing in.

It has taken over 9 months to produce the Review and it was finally published on 8 April 2011. If the delay in Government’s response is anything to go by (over 3 months and counting) the future of capital investment in education looks bleak. The Review team include the great and the good of industry – Sir John Egan; Kevin Grace, Tesco – Director of Property Services ( with no previous construction experience); and John Hood former Vice-Chancellor of University of Oxford, who has been described by a fellow don in the Sunday Times(12 July 2009) as “He wanted to turn us into a kind of Tesco run by outsiders” . At best the review team are good at managing their big estates of sheds and office blocks but with little experience of what is needed for nurturing talent and learning in young people or any track record of how to procure school buildings effectively or efficiently.

James outlined the obvious failing of BSF ‐it was a long and arduous process with 143 steps to get money to schools with 8‐9 different groups responsible for allocating money and incredulously that ‘many people were doing work that did not do anything and they did not know it’! He said that BSF buildings cost too much and it is cheaper to build education buildings in Denmark and Germany. However, there was no analysis of figures or any explanation why it is cheaper on the continent where labour prices are much higher.

If framework procurement doesn’t change radically it is unlikely that new Government policy will be anything more than a way of subsiding freeschools and reducing the entitlement for students on free school meals in tired old buildings.  Despite its title there was little in James’ Keynote speech on lessons learnt. No single BSF project was analysed to demonstrate what worked or failed only a diagram showing how variable quality was across the board. There was no explanation why or what the related costs were. Tim Byles, former CEO of PfS remarked that there had been 18 reviews in 4 1/2 years of BSF and there are good stories from the audit office so there could be no shortage of examples to learn lessons from. It seemed that BSF was a dirty word for James‐ too complex, too costly and too difficult. Transformational design was demonised and templated solutions with the option of a kit of parts was idolised. Only the pilot project, Campsmount Technology College, phoenix like, rose from its ashes– except it was anything but a pilot.

Campsmount is bespoke, transformational, designed by architects and is site specific. It is an excellent example of what committed designers, good teamwork, no planning interference and a desperate situation can deliver. There was no evidence that Campsmount piloted any of the savings. It is not a templated design or a pre‐fabricated kit of parts unless of course you still consider a brick a prefabricated element. There was no central ‘intelligent client body’ helping the school. The headteacher was adamant that the prefabricated CLASP system school that had burnt down was going to be replaced with easy to maintain bricks and mortar. The tragedy of the burnt out school made the community rally round. The insurance company paid £8m for the replacement building, as well as clearing the site and providing temporary portacabins. An additional £200K was found for community use. The short design and construction time was helped by the fact that the school was already preparing for a BSF new build and much of the consultation work had already been done. The reduced cost was due to a more competitive construction market and lower price indices. The most notable time saver was the planning process. The Mayor basically told the planning department to get it through the system in 6 weeks or else!

‘the way we look after our buildings is shocking.’ (Sebastian James)

Both James and Thomson highlighted that the focus of Government policy will be 70‐80% refurbishment. The Review team ignore the fact that the cost of refurbishment is usually much greater than new build particularly if you have to pay for portacabins and ensure that students and staff are protected from the hazards of building works. Most of Tesco’s and Dixon’s sheds are not riddled with asbestos and don’t house wriggly inquisitive kids who require warmth, daylight and mucking about space. Just imagine the consequence of opening up asbestos riddled structures and refurbishing all the services and expecting that this will be cheaper than new build. The disruption to learning will impact the learning delivery. In schools with a good maintenance and management regime this may just be feasible with clients who know what they are doing but these are few and far between. Most are a hotchpotch of accretions with bursars and maintenance personnel struggling to keep things together with duck‐tape. More worrying is the fact that major policy decisions are being made to allocate funds on a needs must basis knowing that we have no idea about the state of our schools’ estate.

The estimated backlog of repairs and maintenance, according to the Review team, is in the region of £8‐22billion and it will be difficult if not impossible to work out what needs to be done because there has been little accountability or monitoring. There are 17 pots of money for different things e.g. toilet refurbishment, kitchen replacement etc with too much complexity and lobbying. Those who are good at filling out the forms get the money rather than the neediest. The billions spent on capital maintenance is not properly monitored or accounted for.

Whilst Government deliberates further on their response, we are sitting on a ticking population time bomb. The rising birth‐rate has generated a large demand for primary school places in urban areas which LAs are struggling to cope with and this will hit the secondary sector in 2017. Parents are no longer moving to leafy suburbs and are being forced, through lack of provision/good provision, to set up their own schools with Government funding, in converted garden centres and office blocks or if they are lucky in a redundant school building. It is difficult enough for LAs, so how can working class parents with aspirations for their children be expected to have the time, money and expertise needed to set up a school when they have the pressures of their own full-time jobs.

Anyone with any experience of building costs knows that it is more expensive to convert a building from one use to another and it will be very difficult in inner city sites to find playgrounds and other amenities. They will also be much more expensive as they are unlikely to have the infrastructure needed– a Freeschool in a garden centre will lack broadband connectivity, staff and governors are unlikely to have building expertise and will need handholding. In other words public money will be channelled to sponsors of Freeschools at the expense of local authority provision and they will be in direct competition with them.

The Review does not set out how to implement the changes that need to happen, this is being left to construction tsar, Paul Morrell. It identifies the need for a strong, expert, intelligent ‘client’ to get time, quality and cost improvements. Lets hope that those responding to the Review are able to work out a sensible solution that overcomes the prejudice against designers and cuts out the excesses of BSF and they remember the words of the headteacher at Campsmount that ‘Ultimately it is about our young people…They will shape the destiny of our nation… it is doomed to fail if it is not’. Alan Sprakes, Headteacher Campsmount.

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