With the government’s ‘Build, Build, Build’ announcement including investment in education and the news of those schools that have been successful in securing money from the Condition Improvement Fund, RLB Partner, Steve Reynolds, reflects on the challenges and opportunities facing the sector.
Alongside the government’s ‘Build, Build, Build’ announcement including future investment in education, was the news from the Department for Education listing those schools that have been successful in receiving a grant from the highly sought after Condition Improvement Fund (CIF). These grants can make a big difference to schools, enabling them to carry out projects to make much needed improvements to their facilities.
When the bids were submitted back In December 2019, we had just re-elected a Conservative government and were speculating on whether their pre-election pledges for additional school funding would come through. What a difference six months makes. Nobody could have foreseen the challenges that the education sector has faced due to the outbreak of COVID-19.
Competition for money from CIF has always been fierce. Applications have been rising steeply year on year whereas the size of the pot has remained much the same. Investment has certainly not kept pace with the increase for example of new academies forming. This year we estimate that one in three schools will have been successful in receiving funding. At RLB we have been delighted to support a number of great school projects that have found out they now have the green light to proceed; securing over £4m nationally with an emphasis of funding in Yorkshire and the North East. But many more schools will have been disappointed.
So, it is good to hear that the government is investing an extra £560m for school repairs and upgrades and that this is in addition to £434m in school condition funding already committed in 2020-21. We have yet to hear specifics but providing more resource to maintain and improve our education estate is much needed across the UK.
However, the understandable delay in announcing this year’s CIF allocations does throw up some interesting challenges. There is now a reduced timeframe to get projects underway in the all-important six week summer holiday period where key works are typically undertaken. No doubt the focus across the education estate in the UK will be on tackling those critical Health & Safety projects which ensure a school remains compliant and open. These will be the absolute priority to deliver for school estate teams in amongst the other challenges they are dealing with as a result of the pandemic.
The delay in this year’s funding also raises another question around the cycle for next year’s CIF submissions. Academy trusts have already heard from the DfE that they have the option to extend spending their 2020-21 allocation beyond April 2021 if they need to. With works normally carried out in the three school holidays, if projects can’t get underway during the summer they may have struggled to spend the allocation by the ‘use it or lose it’ original deadline, so this is welcome news.
It will be interesting to see what the knock-on effect is on the next cycle, as it could be the case that we have two overlapping rounds of funding. This would mean the much needed investment coming into education could cause a spike of activity which consequently creates a squeeze on the supply chain plus a demand for materials, ultimately driving up prices. With every penny allocated for in submissions, there is very little room for fluctuation in costs let alone the debate about who would pick any additional costs up. As often is the case with funding programmes, it’s the devil in the detail that will determine whether it thrives or fails.
At RLB we are putting in place innovative procurement solutions for school projects and thinking laterally to get works onsite and delivered as quickly as we can whilst retaining the best value. Communication with schools remains absolutely key to this, not only to adapt to the ongoing COVID-19 measures but to also manage expectations on all sides. Whilst we wait for detail around the increase investment in education, there is much our industry can do to ensure we deliver the best outcomes for schools in these challenging times.