The National Audit Office has just inspected the government’s city academies programme. Mark Leftly reports on what it had to say, and what the industry says in reply

Tony Blair must be relieved. He has trumpeted his city academies programme so strongly, and for so long, that it seemed he was creating an irresistible hostage to fortune. And who better to take it than parliament’s very own spending watchdog, the National Audit Office (NAO)?

As it turned out, the NAO’s report into the academies that have been built so far was generally positive, confirming that they have “made good progress in improving GCSE results” and that performance is rising at a galloping rate. Not a bad return for the £840m invested in the programme up until October 2006.

However, the NAO did have some concerns, which is not surprising given that 17 of the academy buildings have run up an average of £3m in unbudgeted costs, and that plans for their maintenance had not been formalised.

This is Building’s guide to some of the criticisms and recommendations made in the NAO’s 51-page document and the industry’s reaction to each of them...

Cost overruns

NAO criticism

“Overruns have resulted from poor project management.”


The Department for Education and Skills (DfES) and Partnerships for Schools, which runs the academies programme, should ensure that project managers have sufficient expertise in tracking and monitoring costs.


Some project managers feel the criticism is out of date. Originally, many academies had a single project manager, but this role was separated into two, with one tackling the overall programme, and the other looking after the construction. It is generally agreed that this was effective. But now that academies have become part of Building Schools for the Future, it looks likely that the roles will be merged, and the schemes will be contractor-led. The project manager says: “History tells us that that has not always worked. We've built up a wealth of experience on academies, which the contractors haven’t.”

Post-project review

NAO criticism

“The department neither undertakes nor commissions a post-project review after each academy opens.”


Reviews should start on all academies that opened in September 2006 and on future projects, involving all stakeholders.


John Cherrington, schools design director at Atkins, is dubious about the value of doing post-occupancy reviews so soon after the academies have opened. “It’s about transforming education – how long does it take to manifest a transformation? It’s not a year, that’s for sure.”

Cherrington thinks reviews, perhaps in the form of conferences and workshops on what has been learned at the academies, should take place after a few years, once teachers and headmasters have got used to the different types of spaces and new technologies. Ideally, the head would ensure that his or her staff get training to utilise the space effectively.


NAO criticism

“Most academies face risks to their sustainability, such as uncertainty about the costs of maintaining their innovative buildings.”


The DfES needs to examine the costs of maintaining the buildings, and use the results to create more sustainable designs.


There’s a real hope in the industry that, from May, whole-life costs rather than traditional, one-off capital budgets will become the norm for choosing a preferred bidder. A group set up by the Public Sector Construction Clients Forum has recommended changes to the Treasury’s green book, which sets out procurement guidance for capital projects. This would mean all schemes would have to be judged on a lifespan of at least 10 years.

Richard Saxon, the RIBA’s representative on the working group, says: “Until now decisions have been made ignoring operating costs. Now they will have to consider everything, including carbon footprints and water-saving.”


NAO criticism

“Some academies undertake all their own procurement and support services, while others are establishing collaborations to help share and reduce costs.”


Academies need to pool their buying power. For example, the NAO estimates that the DfES could save about £2m a year if they purchased insurance together.


There’s a problem here: academies were always meant to be individual. Peter Stanton-Ife, director of education advisory and infrastructure at Ernst & Young, says: “They’ve been independent of local authority control so far – except where they’re sponsored by a local authority – and have tended to make a fetish out of not accepting support. If the government has a policy of making them independent, it’s hard to ask them to collaborate.”

However, Stanton-Ife argues that all it will take is some “self-confidence” among academies, so that they don’t feel undermined by collaborating. “After all, it’s only about buying things,” he says.


NAO criticism

“The academies programme is unevenly spread, geographically.”


Suitable sponsors (the private sector partner that stumps up about £2m per academy) should be found to improve the spread.


Ty Goddard, director of the British Council for School Environments, says moves to improve the spread have already started.

“The early history of academies was about finding sponsors,” he says. “It’s now about looking at strategic partnerships locally, so this has opened up sponsorship to higher education institutions and even museums.”

Until now, the sponsors have largely been rich businessmen or major companies based in London. Goddard points to Manchester as a place where things are changing: last month Laing O’Rourke, Bovis Lend Lease, the Manchester Children’s Hospitals Trust and Manchester airport came forward as academy sponsors.

The snags that cost

The Department for Education and Skills had to give an extra £1.4m to three of the academies for buildings that were opened but had operational faults or “snags”. These were:

  • The Business Academy, Kent, where £800,000 was spent on fixing IT and providing a playground
  • Capital City Academy, north-west London: £400,000 went on enlarging a library and building four classrooms to improve teaching and study space
  • Mossbourne Community Academy, east London: £200,000 was put towards the cost of enlarging classrooms and the dining room