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James review of education capital: a centralised system?

10 February 2011

Building a new science laboratory, a sports hall or perhaps a new school? Don’t re-invent the wheel. With £7.6 billion of capital expenditure by the Department for Education (DfE) in 2010/2011 there must be a design already out there for you. This is the key finding of the James review. Sebastian James recently completed a review of all capital investment funded by the DfE. He concluded that the current capital allocation process does not succeed in targeting money to where it is needed. The rationale behind historic programmes, in particular the BSF programme, did not reflect the correct priorities and led to capital being allocated to some buildings that did not require it whilst leaving other schools extremely dilapidated. This is unlikely to come as a surprise to readers. The core sentiment throughout the review is that reform is required through the systems from capital allocation through to the delivery and management of individual buildings on the ground to achieve value for money and fit-for-purpose school buildings. The review made a series of recommendations falling into the following categories; 

Capital allocation

  • new objective based criteria: capital investment should be based on objective facts and consistently applied criteria. The methodology used must be consistent from one area to another and from year to year.
  • single flexible budget: the DfE should bring available capital together into a single, flexible budget and end multiple funding streams. In the past there have been multiple funding streams which have frequently led to funding being misapplied or going to organisations most capable of filling in the appropriate forms rather than where the need is the greatest.
  • accountability for maintenance: there should be clear guidance on legal responsibilities in relation to maintenance of buildings, and on how revenue funding can be used for facility maintenance to prevent confusion and inconsistency arising.

Design and build

  • standardised approach to drawings and specifications: a suite of drawings and specifications should be developed that can be coordinated centrally and easily be applied to a wide range of projects. This will prevent school designs being ad-hoc and seek to reduce the costs of individual projects. The suite of drawings should be centrally maintained and be continuously improved through learning from projects.

Effective procurement and maintenance

  • central procurement body: the DfE should set up a new central body to act at the ‘strong, expert, intelligent client’ who would build up expertise in negotiating and monitoring the performance of contractors.
  • new national procurement contracts: the central procurement body should put in place a small number of new national contracts that will drive quality and value for the programme of building projects ahead.

It is not yet clear to what extent the Government will adopt the recommendations. However, a response to the review is expected from Michael Gove imminently. This should provide more guidance on the future of capital expenditure by the DfE.

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