An educated approach
The government has just launched its latest consultation paper, looking at the mechanisms for funding schools
At a recent meeting at the Barber-Surgeon's Hall in London, organised by Faber Maunsell, Mukund Patel, head of the DfES's School's Building and Design Unit, gave a useful introduction to the need to reappraise funding for schools building in the UK, with specific reference to the stock in England.
The scope of his presentation covered the details of the latest government consultation paper, Building Schools for the Future: Consultation on a New Approach to Capital Investment, which considers a new approach to investment in school buildings. The very short consultation period has just closed, and Patel outlined key areas he anticipated would be addressed.
According to Patel, such is the close interest in 'education, education, education' among government ministers that Charles Clarke, Secretary of State for Education and Skills, meets with the prime minister every six weeks for a 'stocktake of all school buildings'. Believe that if you will, but the recognition of the parlous state of the existing stock is certainly concentrating minds and pushing through investment opportunities, although this should not be overstated.
Once again, the government has pulled the old trick of announcing a budgetary commitment to new spending using monies already earmarked in previous global funding proposals. Its £1.1 billion modernisation money for LEAs, for example, recently press-released to tackle the remaining backlog of repairs and to invest in improvements, is just a reiteration of the pledge made in last year's Spending Review. This type of spin is hucksterism of the worst kind and seems to be a particularly silly game to play in terms of public trust.
Presumably, though, the fact that nobody points it out is what Clarke, quite literally, is banking on.
Money, money, money
At present, out of 22,000 schools in England, 14 per cent are patched-up Victorian buildings and 60 per cent are effectively pre-mid-1960s stock. Many of these are systems-built. Only 14 per cent of all school buildings in use today were built after 1976 and 2 per cent are still 'temporary' structures.
Patel noted that Victorian buildings were generally structurally sound but difficult to adapt; post-war stock was generally flat-roofed and unexciting ('how can you hope to get the children excited?'); and he didn't need to tell the audience that the 400 or so temporary outbuildings are simply a disgraceful comment on the state of the sector.
In the light of the 'Public Private Partnership/Public Finance Initiative versus traditional procurement' debacle earlier this year, when school buildings procured under PFI were criticised for their low-quality design, the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) has admitted that less than 60 per cent of the schools in its 2005 construction programme will be built using PFI (AJ 6.3.03). No comparative study has yet been carried out to ascertain the proportion of incompetently-designed school buildings and their relationship with procurement method.
Report 407 (see references below) shows that there is a 'positive and statistically significant association between capital investment and pupil performance'.
Whereas this might sound like offering money to students to encourage them to do well - a cross between a bribe and a gift - it also conveniently sidetracks other key areas of increasing concern, such as falling standards of examination rigour, more relativised measures of performance, teaching standards versus classroom standards, etc. But the real need for investment in improved school facilities is hardly a contentious point.
Sorry, wrong area
Part of the problem with each of the various funding mechanisms has been that monies are provided, after a long, bureaucratic application and justification process, which are then allocated to a new-build, upgrade or refurbishment scheme.
Whatever procurement method is used, there is considerable scope for chicanery in the creative application for funds and in the final use of the monies. Such is the autarky that is the education sector. Technical means of addressing these problems often cause more bureaucratic headaches for the participants than they resolve.
For example, one of the more controversial elements of the Building Schools for the Future document is its flagging up of the issue of geographical funding prioritisation. Moving away from the usual 'patch and repair' philosophy, which sees the school refurbishment budget spread thinly over the total stock, the new idea is to provide funds to target areas. By choosing 150 local authority areas every year, for instance, and giving them the full national budget allowance, it is believed they can do a thorough job on their stock - while the rest of the country awaits the next year's tranche allocation to another select group of 150 authorities.
The consultation document suggests that, in this way, groups of 20 schools might receive £150 million per group (£7.5 million per school spread across 300 schools rather than Patel's example of 150 schools). Either way, across the total stock, some headteachers are going to have a very long wait.
This is lottery funding in its truest sense of the word. Furthermore, once the logic of 'nice buildings make brighter pupils' takes hold, Patel advises that a further priority will be given to secondary schools because 'Key Stage 3 schoolkids aren't making progress'. Currently, there are about 18,000 primary schools and 3,500 secondaries. A special approach is proposed for London, which has 415 schools across 33 boroughs
New way forward
The Spending Review pledge of £5 billion in 2005/06 will be the time for the change to new approaches in funding mechanisms, complementing the normal capital programme. The review states that it aims to deliver 'facilities of a high standard' to every secondary school pupil in England 'within 10-15 years from 2005/06, subject to future public spending decisions'. This is not the definitive statement of intent some might hope for, governed as it is by the need for the economic conditions to be right.
The Department for Education and Skills (DfES) report Building Schools for the Future: Consultation on a New Approach to Capital Investment (34pp) is available online at
www. dfes. gov. uk/consultations2/docs/ DfES Publication. pdf
Building Better Performance, by PricewaterhouseCoopers, Report 407, is available at www. dfes. gov. uk/research
Schools for the Future: Designs for Learning Communities, Building Bulletin 95, DfES,85pp can be downloaded at www. teachernet. gov. uk/_doc/3149/ bulletin95. pdf
CABE has created a charitable foundation, CABE Education, to promote the learning potential of the built environment, particularly among young people.
It aims to create a national network of educators, teachers, education officers, gallery and museum workers and youth workers to 'inject architecture and the built environment into the bloodstream of formal and informal education'. To register or find out more email nlithgow@cabe. org. uk
Retail property support service company Styles and Wood has just launched a comprehensive staff development programme in conjunction with Manchester Business School designed to benchmark and accredit internal performance levels.
Called 'The Academy', sounding like a Channel 4 docusoap, it could be accused of dumbing down real education. The programme takes the form of a corporate university within its own office and elevates the notion of continuous professional development - or even simple social skills - to an academic plane. It is modelled on the 10-year-old Unipart University.
Four separate learning modules are on offer:
Values, Behaviours and Aims;
Improving Skills - Delivering Results;
Becoming a Styles & Wood Manager; and
Advanced Management Learning.
Chief executive Neil Davies says: 'The construction industry receives a lot of bad press about skills shortages and lack of commitment on behalf of employees.We hope the academy will provide a structured career path.'
Since it is a prerequisite that all employees 'graduate' from the academy, it might be viewed as yet another Investors in People-style mechanism for making staff work and train harder, with the promise of an E Pluribus Unum paper diploma at the end of it all. With its first enrolment, corporate eyes will be watching whether improved productivity will result.
For information call 01625 430538.