Who builds our schools?

The National Audit office report on Capital Funding for Schools, published earlier today, echoes many of the comments already made in previous posts on this blog. https://www.nao.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/Capital-funding-for-schools.pdf

Although the NAO report covers all aspects of school building, the key section that interests me is the relationship between school place planning and the emerging school system. The executive summary contains two key paragraphs reproduced below – with my highlighting of key points – that make most of the issues clear in simple language.

14 Local authorities have a statutory duty to provide enough school places in their areas but they do not control the number of places in academies or free schools. This means that responsibilities and accountabilities for providing school places are not fully aligned. To fulfil their responsibility local authorities work with individual schools to expand existing provision. However, their plans to create new places are affected by, and in some cases dependent on, free schools and academies. Local authorities cannot compel academies to expand or contract. Many local authorities have good relationships with academies. However, where academies do not want to expand or relationships are weaker, local authorities’ options for creating new places are constrained. In the case of free schools, while local authorities can initiate the process, they are dependent on the availability of an appropriate applicant and the Department’s approval. In addition, in the 30% of cases where the opening of a free school has been delayed, local authorities may have had to make alternative arrangements to provide the necessary places. The Department is working increasingly closely with local authorities when opening free schools (paragraphs 1.11, 1.28 and 1.29).

15 In seeking to increase choice, introduce innovation and raise standards free schools often meet a demographic need for new school places, but they are also creating spare capacity, which may have implications for schools’ financial sustainability. By September 2016 the Department had opened 429 new free schools, and plans to open 883 in total by September 2020. The Free Schools Programme aims to give parents more choice and increase competition between schools, and thereby improve the quality of education. Free schools also have a role in meeting local need for new school places. There can be an inherent tension in the extent to which they can meet these aims cost-effectively. The Department estimates that some of the places in 83% of the mainstream free schools approved since September 2013 address a need for more school places. It also estimates that 57,500 of 113,500 new places in mainstream free schools opening between 2015 and 2021 will create spare capacity in some free schools’ immediate area. Spare capacity can affect pupil numbers, and therefore funding, in neighbouring schools. The Department’s data indicate that spare places in 52 free schools opening in 2015 could have a moderate or high impact on the funding of any of 282 neighbouring schools. The financial sustainability of free schools themselves may also be affected if a significant number of their places are not filled. The Department assesses financial viability as part of the process of approving free school applications. It has also sought to assess whether creating free schools is having the intended effect of improving educational standards through competition but the sample size is currently too small to draw meaningful conclusions.

The government does need to show who is responsible in the end: where does the buck stop?

Yesterday, before the publication of this report I addressed Oxfordshire’s Cabinet on the issue of a new free school – The Swan School – the Education Funding Agency has found a site that is not in everyone’s view sited in the best location. My concern is if the school opening is delayed beyond when the places are needed, who bears the costs, especially if there are recurring transport costs should some academies not offer to help with additional places? Hopefully, it won’t come to that and council tax payers won’t have any extra cost to bear.

At least in the case of the Swan School the EFA won’t have overpaid as the site selected is owned by the county council. The NAO did find the government had to pay premium prices for some land. The NAO were also critical of the cost of the former ‘building schools for the future’ scheme and although its replacement has been less costly, it too appears to have exceeded its budget.

School building is a challenging area and we can ill-afford to lose the expertise from local authorities.  No doubt, once gone, the government will have to recreate the knowledge and skills to help us both build sufficient schools and effectively maintain those we already have.

Both Mrs Thatcher and Ted Short, her Labour predecessor, wanted to replace all pre-1906 schools. That ambition has still to be achieved nearly half a century later. Whether we should do so is a matter for debate, even if we could afford to do so.



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