The government’s decision to divert £900m of funding away from school’s capital budgets raises troubling questions over the longer-term impact on the education sector’s estate
Cutting teachers’ jobs, asking parents to stump up cash, and using money allocated to support disadvantaged pupils to plug funding gaps: the actions schools are being forced to take to address budget shortfalls are depressingly well-documented. So is the scale of the challenge they face: last year, the National Audit Office calculated that schools would have to find £3bn of savings by 2019 to combat rising costs and a real-terms cut to funding per pupil.
So when education secretary Justine Greening announced recently that she had found an extra £1.3bn to pay for school education over the next two years, teaching groups, while not exactly leaping for joy, welcomed the news. But while the move will alleviate some short-term pressure on schools’ coffers, the relatively-unpublicised fact that £900m of the money has been diverted from schools’ capital budgets raises troubling questions over the longer-term impact on the already creaking primary and secondary estate.
Several well-placed sources told Building this week that they believe the cuts – which come largely from a fund designed to improve school sports facilities, alongside £280m from the free schools programme – will not threaten programmes that have already been approved; and that the autumn Budget makes it likely more funds for capital will be found. But of far greater concern is the fear that Greening’s announcement sets a precedent for more such switches further down the line. That £1.3bn represents a 2% fillip for education budgets, but the NAO forecasts that, due to inflation, costs of running schools will rise 8% by 2019/20.
Enough classrooms for pupils to be taught in and buildings that do not crumble or collapse are not luxuries.
Meanwhile, by the following year, an extra 420,000 school places need to be created in England. And while delivery body the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) grapples with that issue, it must also stave off a maintenance backlog that was estimated at £6.7bn in February – and is predicted to double by 2020/21.
Enough classrooms for pupils to be taught in and buildings that do not crumble or collapse are not luxuries. They are essential to an education system that is meant to offer a future to all children, regardless of their background, and will determine the future of the economy as a whole. So the government needs to ensure that capital spending, alongside revenue budgets, is equal to the immense task at hand. And that those who rely on this funding have the certainty over its future to plan their investments – and the means of delivery.
To that end, the autumn Budget will be crucial. Building understands that the ESFA is bidding to Treasury for a third, enhanced wave of the £2.3bn Priority Schools Building Programme for school condition. Such a commitment would set a clear, and much-needed, trajectory for the future renewal of inadequate buildings. Even better would be the kind of rolling programme sources say is being envisaged by the ESFA, where the sector would be able to plan for a steady delivery of work over a number of years. And of course, with wider market uncertainty over Brexit, steady delivery of construction work offers direct economic benefits, too.
When it comes to the hundreds of thousands of school places needed in the next four years, one constraint has long been the availability and cost of suitable sites. One way of alleviating this problem could lie a step along the education system, in the universities.
This could open the door to underused parts of university estates being used for school buildings
As we explore on pages 28-30, universities’ estates investment is holding steady at around £2.4bn a year. But a triple whammy of uncertainties – over tuition fees, the impact of Brexit on research grants and student applications, and volatility over student numbers since the liberalisation of university admission procedures – means that universities are starting to take a more hard-nosed approach to future development.
The impact is not so much on universities at the top end of league tables, but those lower down: half of capital spending in 2015/16 came from just 18 institutions. Less high-profile or newer universities concerned about potential volatility of income are starting to move away from using masterplans to automatically refurbish or replace facilities, instead focusing on areas where they are delivering highly ranked courses and know they are likely to see returns.
This could open the door to underused parts of university estates being used for school buildings, either by offering land for new schools or by universities establishing secondary schools themselves.
Having university developments as the lynchpin for community regeneration is a cherished idea among some architects and planners, and has already happened in pockets. The tally of funding uncertainty across education could prove the unlikely driver for it to happen on a bigger scale.
Sarah Richardson, editor
Follow Sarah on Twitter @SarahR100