Over the past decade, financial support for capital expenditure in schools has been diminishing. Maintained schools have seen their devolved capital grants, which come through their LA, reduced significantly, with no access to further funding unless recognised by the LA as imperative.
Church schools continue to have access to their diocese, while standalone academies can apply to the condition improvement fund. MATs are eligible to receive both devolved formula capital (DFC) funding and school condition allocations, but in truth, there’s less money available for capital spending.
The difficulty, or otherwise, of acquiring capital funding doesn’t match the level of responsibility many schools have for maintaining the condition of their buildings – some of which are barely fit for purpose. While there have been occasional announcements of financial support for schools’ spending – most recently, Philip Hammond’s offer of funding for ‘little extras’ in October 2018 – the truth is that our school building stock has been in decline for decades; the lack of funding we’ve seen in recent years has only hastened its deterioration.
With the onset of academisation, the growing number of free schools and the phasing out of initiatives such as Building Schools for the Future, there can be no ‘one size fits all’ answer to the issue, short of a huge injection of funding. So how can we plan wisely, using whatever capital expenditure we’ve managed to secure, and make it work for our school settings, given the limited resources at our disposal?
What’s your vision?
To use capital funding effectively, it’s important to have a school vision for the capital expenditure, whether it’s intended for buildings or ICT. It’s now considered good practice, if not statutory, for all schools and academies to have a fully costed school or academy development plan in place that sets out a clear strategic vision. A premises development plan (PDP) that sits alongside this can help you map out your ‘capital vision’, and potentially take the form of a single document, together with your SIP/ADP, operational plans and staffing structure.
If you’re an academy, the new CIF guidance document ‘Good Estates Management for Schools’ (see tinyurl.com/dfe-gems), outlines processes similar to those one might find in a premises development plan but in far greater detail, alongside plenty of good advice for all types of school. The GEMS guidance also provides some useful information on how to draw up an estates asset management plan – something that maintained schools might not get much value from, but which is now an expectation for standalone academies and MATs.
In my school, I use the PDP as a working document and ensure that it’s referred to during any discussions around capital investment where capacity, affordability, sustainability and best value are all key considerations. I also use it to help set budgets both in year and strategically, and when considering how revenue funding should be allocated to ensure that specific aims are achieved.
My PDP is fed into from many sources, including the net capacity assessment, SLT and governor wishes, while taking into account future changes at the school, such as increasing pupil numbers. I currently work in a secondary school that has a growing pupil roll, but has to manage the restrictions of being a PFI. This means that my PDP looks a little different compared to most, since I don’t have the ability to plan any rebuilds or significant alterations. I’m still able to apply its principles to other areas of capital spending, however, and have found it to be a useful document to consult even when making relatively small changes.
Of course, in order for all this to be beneficial, as an SBM you’ll need to be familiar with your school or academy’s improvement plan, and be closely involved in any future planning and development efforts. What a good PDP does is enable a more joined-up view of whole school development, changes and expenditure, while providing a means of including all members of senior management in your finance and estates planning – which often isn’t the case.
Capital funding is financing for infrastructure, and it’s for the school or academy to decide whether it should be put towards buildings or ICT. That said, if you’re part of a MAT, the decision may have already been made for you.
There are many benefits to adopting a planned and co-ordinated approach – not least the ways in which it will enhance your school’s learning environment. Warm, comfortable buildings that are fit for purpose will improve the wellbeing of both staff and students and make your setting a more pleasant place in which to work and learn, contributing to better outcomes.
If your capital funding is to be directed towards ICT, then be aware of its sustainability. It can be tempting for headteachers and principals, upon receipt of monies such as the aforementioned ‘little extras’ funding, to purchase new technologies or replace existing devices. When using such funding for ICT purposes, however, it’s important to look at the long-term cost implications of what maintaining, repairing and ultimately replacing those purchases will involve. Often, these avenues won’t be affordable within a school’s basic budget allocations.
Saying that, this will often be the only way through which schools can add value to their ICT provision. An SLT- or governor-led decision to use ongoing capital for this purpose will be perfectly sound, so long as those principles are taken into account.
Finally, capital projects, particularly those providing a tangible benefit to the local community, can often attract donations and funding from external sources. Doing this will be easier if you have something to match fund with – in this case, any capital monies you can allocate to the project. As always, it pays to be innovative.
SBPs can call on a number of business principles to inform their capital spending decisions in relation to buildings and estates management. Investing time in planning today can pay dividends tomorrow – examples of which might include the following:
• Planning your maintenance well into the future, thus reducing your spend on reactive works
• Avoiding costly mistakes by making decisions in full awareness of all the facts
• Co-ordinating projects which will offer a better view of value for money
• Devising a reliable planning process for day-to-day actions, such as arranging room moves, co-ordinating staff cover and ensuring the availability of curriculum resources
• Sharing aspects of your capital spending plans with neighbouring schools, which can lead to you all concentrating on different specialist areas and result in local facilities provision far exceeding what your individual budgets would otherwise cover
Sue Birchall is a consultant, speaker, writer, trainer and business manager at The Malling School, Kent