At first glance the government’s funding models seem confusing, but there is an overriding rationale which architects must exploit, says Aecom’s Mairi Johnson
Anyone reading this document will have a desire for school environments to be of excellent quality – rich, varied, spacious and durable. But these attributes come at a cost. The current regime for capital funding for schools in England still exists in the twilight of austerity with no sign of a new dawn any time soon. It’s worthwhile understanding the drivers behind our existing system so that the best use can be made of the money that is available. But it’s also interesting to look at models from other parts of the world and speculate about whether they could be used in the UK.
The mechanisms for determining the amount of capital funding available to schools and the ways that this funding might be accessed have been consistent since 2011, when Michael Gove was secretary of state for education in the coalition government. The array of funding streams can give the impression that the Department for Education has a piecemeal approach to school environments that doesn’t add up to an overall strategy but there is an over-arching rationale behind it all.
When the coalition government took office in 2010, informed by the ‘I’m afraid there is no money’ note left by Liam Byrne, former secretary to the treasury, there was a review of everything that public money was spent on and a consideration of how the country could work with less financial support from the centre.
The Department for Education’s total budget was protected but plans were made for a significant reduction in the amount of capital funding that would be spent on the school estate. This was done in the belief that it would create a system that was fairer than the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme, which was deemed to be distributing funds too unevenly around the country.
In addition, BSF was charged with creating undue influence on schools from central and local government and generally spending too much on school buildings. The review of school capital spending pinpointed two urgent pressures: the need to tackle the poor condition of many school buildings and the necessity of increasing the number of school places in certain parts of the country.
Alongside this, Gove wanted to see equality of opportunity, in particular that publicly funded schools should have as good a standard of education as those that charged fees. This would be achieved by increasing the autonomy of schools to offer the best education as they saw it, free from local authority control. The introduction of free schools and the drive to encourage high-performing schools to become academies are manifestations of this policy. Parents would be able to choose the school that best suited their child from the variety available and schools would compete with each other to attract pupils.
Ofsted would maintain quality checks and ensure that any school that fell below an acceptable standard was swiftly improved. If a school closed because of falling pupil numbers because other local schools were more popular, this was seen to be the result of a healthy market. The quality of a school premises was not seen as an important contributor to the school’s quality of education. Teaching and leadership was deemed more significant. This was justified by noting that many private schools have unimpressive premises but are still able to achieve excellent results.
In this new policy landscape, the role of central government was to fund accommodation at a minimum standard, based on specific need. Schools that had buildings in a very poor state of repair could receive funding through the Priority School Building Programme or the Academies Capital Maintenance Fund. Local authorities that needed to increase the supply of school places could apply for Basic Need funding that they would use to extend schools in their area.
Free schools were treated on a case-by-case basis but were only funded to provide the same minimum standard, lowest cost environment as other schools. It was seen as being up to individual schools to make the most of what they had and to craft how they would deliver education from their premises, rather than central government. There would be no equivalent of BSF’s Educational Transformation under the coalition government.
The overriding rationale then, is to empower schools and liberate them from government control – whether that comes from central or local government. School premises are seen as a neutral backdrop to education, not its direct enabler. Central government sets standards and funds accommodation to a minimum level. Local government retains responsibility for providing sufficient school places to meet demand, assisted by funding from the centre.
If a school wishes to improve its environment beyond the minimum, then it is up to the school community or Academy Trust to raise the money for this through grants from external bodies, sponsorship, fundraising or careful management of reserves – much like the cultural sector. Raising money by selling off school land for development is rarely a viable option because of the strict measures in place to prevent the loss of school playing fields. Brand new schools on new sites may be able to generate additional money through planning gain measures or by designing the school as part of a mixed-use development.
It is difficult for schools to have large ambitions within the current funding climate. English schools are not resourced to spend time raising substantial amounts of money. Achieving the best environment possible becomes a matter of adapting existing buildings, imaginative use of available funds or accumulative change as a result of small projects paid for from routine maintenance budgets. This is where an injection of design expertise can be so valuable – imagining the same place different can be very difficult for people outside the design professions. But are we stuck with this situation forever? This regime certainly seems to be entrenched for the foreseeable future, but other places in the world are tackling the same issues in different ways.
In the USA, schools are funded and managed in school districts. These are separate from other forms of local government and have their own tax-raising powers. The taxes raised from the local population are used to manage the schools day by day. If school districts wish to fund a programme of improvements beyond their annual tax income, then they can borrow money against their future tax revenues. This mechanism is called a Bond Programme and requires local voters to vote in favour of the school district taking on the debt and also the intended use of the money.
Spending on schools is popular and as a result substantial bond programmes tend to be voted through. New school facilities seem generous to the UK, so much so that universities are concerned about how they can meet students’ expectations for the quality of learning environments and sporting facilities. This system leads to a very close relationship between schools and their communities. School districts prefer to spend their funds within their locale, so schools are able to establish a close relationship with local suppliers. This is particularly useful for architects and builders who will be local to the school they are creating and will have a detailed dialogue with the teaching staff and the managing school district. They are also likely to be asked to do further work to a school, if the need is identified.
Could this ever happen here? Last year’s referendum on Scottish independence set in train a series of events that might just mean that it could. The Scots voted ‘No’ but the subsequent arrangements for devo-max mean that precedents are being set that could be implemented in new regional governments in England and in Wales and Northern Ireland. Scotland already has full control of its education spending and its standards and priorities differ from England’s. The Manchester City region is making serious plans to operate as a regional government and it could be followed by other parts of England. In Greater London, mayoral hopefuls have called for an independent body to oversee education in the capital.
If these regional governments come about, they are likely to have some tax- or rates-collecting powers and any funds that are raised would probably be ring-fenced for spending locally through local businesses. As for the design of schools, regional government might not be required to follow central government guidelines for space standards, etc. Central government still produces guidance on school design via the Building Bulletins but most of this information is not a legal requirement.
Could this really be the future? I think it could. It’s difficult to predict another chain of events that would lead to a significant change in the amount that central government is prepared to pay for school buildings or a change in the size of schools. As for when it might happen – don’t hold your breath.
This article first appeared in the #Great Schools publication sponsored by Hawkins\Brown