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Audit office calls on government to assess school design standards

Goats Lee Primary School
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The National Audit Office (NAO) has praised the Priority Schools Building Programme’s value for money, but it called on the Department for Education to evaluate the quality of buildings produced

The spending watchdog said today that the Priority School Building Programme (PSBP) had delivered new schools a third more cheaply than the former Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme it replaced.

But it said the Department for Education (DfE) should evaluate the finished quality of PSBP buildings, following concerns raised by local authorities and the RIBA about design standards.

‘PSBP schools must meet minimum standards set by the department,’ it said. ‘The department has not yet evaluated the performance of the buildings, but has received feedback from 53 school leaders, 85 per cent of whom were at least satisfied with their new building.’

Councils, however, raised worries over some of the department’s cost-saving measures, such as decreasing communal space.

The NAO also quoted an RIBA report Better Spaces for Learning, which found that standard designs and short timescales did not always allow buildings to be tailored to individual needs.

RIBA president Jane Duncan said: ‘We are delighted that the NAO has drawn on our research and recommendations in its review, including our call for the DfE to evaluate the quality of the buildings provided through its main capital programme.

‘We need to ensure every penny spent on schools stretches as far as possible, and that new schools do not store up problems for the future. We look forward to working further with the Department for Education to ensure better quality school buildings are delivered for children and teachers now and in the future.’

The NAO said that the PSBP had reduced costs by introducing more standardisation and, recently, by using prefabricated buildings.

Economies of scale from central procurement and not funding items such as furniture and fittings had also brought down costs, it found.

In addition, schools delivered through the programme were cheaper because they were smaller – by 15 per cent for a secondary school and 6 per cent for a primary school.

However, the programme still overshot its original budget of £4.3 billion by £286 million due to inflation, unexpected project costs and the programme’s expansion.

The NAO report found that money spent on free schools had doubled in the first five years of the programme, with nearly £10 billion expected to be spent on them by 2021.

The report said the free school programme had been much larger in scale and cost than the DfE had planned, and that many free schools had been built in areas with no demographic need.

The report estimated that £6.7 billion was needed to bring all schools up to a ‘satisfactory’ condition, and a further £7.1 billion to raise parts of school buildings from ‘satisfactory’ to ‘good’ condition.

Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, said: ‘The department has responded positively to start to meet the challenges it faces in relation to the quality and capacity of the school estate.

‘Significant challenges remain, however, as the population continues to grow and the condition of the ageing estate deteriorates.’

Former education secretary Michael Gove replaced BSF with PSBP in 2010, halting improvement plans for 719 schools.

At the time he enrgaged architects by claiming they had ‘creamed off cash’ from the programme and that money spent on design would be better spent on ‘frontline services’.

Last year, Gove voiced regrets about the way he had handled the decision, saying: ‘It was not so much that it was wrong to save public money. It was done in a crass and insensitive way and it taught me a lesson.’

Key recommendations:

The department [for education] should improve its understanding of the costs of capital projects run by local authorities and how much local authorities are contributing to the cost of new school places.

The department should evaluate the quality of the buildings provided through its main capital programmes to allow it to assess cost-effectiveness and identify good practice.

The department should continue to improve its understanding of the condition of the school estate and consider how it can get more value out of the next property data survey. For example, it should compare the findings with the previous survey and analyse the data in greater depth to understand patterns of condition need. The department should work more closely with local authorities to understand and meet need in local areas.

The department should make the system work better by:
• setting out clearly the responsibilities and accountabilities of local authorities and academy trusts for managing the school estate
• providing incentives for local authorities and academy trusts to maintain school buildings well, including by undertaking important but not necessarily urgent maintenance work
• supporting local authorities and academy trusts to strengthen their management of land and buildings.  

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