Centralise to cut School Building Costs by 30%

In a recent Review of Education Capital by a team of businessmen led by Sebastian James, group operations director of Dixons Retail, says that costs can be cut by 30% and recommends procurement of construction to be centralised and standardised.

The review, commissioned by education secretary Michael Gove, makes numerous recommendations. Among them. it says that instead of designing all schools from scratch, new buildings should be based on a set of standardised drawings and specifications.

It also recommends that the Department for Education takes control of school building away from local authorities and other responsible bodies (e.g. academy trusts and dioceses that also run schools). The report says: “There must be a single, strong, expert, intelligent ‘client’ acting for the public sector in its relationships with the construction industry and responsible for both the design and the delivery of larger projects.” Local authorities and other responsible bodies would have responsibility for maintenance. “Currently there is no explicit obligation to maintain buildings and no agreed standard. Funds are wholly devolved to school level making it impossible for responsible bodies to prioritise their needs at a local level.”

In a covering letter to the education secretary, Mr James wrote: “It has taken slightly longer than I anticipated, as I was very keen to test the emerging recommendations with as wide a group of interested parties as possible before putting them to you.”

He said: “In summary, I have found that the system of capital allocation and spending which has developed over at least the last decade has frequently resulted in poor use of resources, a bureaucratic system for providers and Local Authorities and a mixed – and at times poor – outcome for both parents and children. The schools building programme, Building Schools for the Future, has been one of epic proportions, at least in terms of the money deployed. However, because procurement has not been sufficiently centralised, and because the Government has not ensured that contracts are always negotiated by those who have the appropriate expertise, the public sector has failed consistently to get the value it should have done, given the commercial leverage that this scale of programme should command.

“While the civil servants, local authorities and frontline professionals involved have done their best to administer the system they were asked to use, it is, in my view, the case that the system is not fit for purpose and has been working against them.

“I believe that there are some very significant opportunities to increase the amount of schools regeneration that we can undertake for any given sum of money. To give you a flavour of this, the consensus view from our workshops was that as much as 30% of the total money spent could be saved and this is borne out by our initial pilot project in Doncaster.

“By reforming the capital allocation system so that investment is focused on the condition of buildings and the provision of high quality school places, and by creating a robust and fair local process for prioritisation of projects, funding can get to where it is needed most. Through a more standardised approach to design and an expert, centralised approach to the procurement and delivery of major projects, greater quality and value for money can be achieved. Sharper accountabilities for maintaining buildings and better procurement routes for doing so will help ensure that the current estate is able to deliver for our children in the decades ahead.

“My vision is of a system which prioritises both quality and value, which makes the best use of professional expertise to ensure that, even at a time of significantly reduced budgets, we achieve your aim of providing fit-for-purpose facilities and securing additional places where they are needed and helping the disadvantaged.

“Putting my recommendations into practice will be a major challenge. I know that I am asking for a significant change in culture and practice. Getting the right structures in place to deliver at national and local level will be vital. I anticipate that, for some stakeholders in the process, there will be parts of my suggested approach that may be less palatable than others and that there will need to be some give-and-take. However, the team has been heartened by the high level of consensus that has been building among the many different parties that have been involved in this process, and I believe we all need to remain focused on the goal of delivering the educational infrastructure that we need at a cost that we can afford.”

Welcoming the report, Michael Gove said: “I thank Sebastian James and his review team for their incredibly hard work and Partnerships for Schools for their help with the Review. I welcome this independent report and we will respond soon. The system we inherited had profound problems. We must have a system for school building which is much simpler, less bureaucratic, and which targets priority projects.”

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