James Report Review of Education Capital

Jim MacFarlane
The recent report by Sebastian James drew a number of conclusions and has made corresponding recommendations on how to improve the management of education capital.

Although the report is essentially about how best to invest from a capital perspective there are a number of aspects that have a bearing not just on capital requirements but on maintenance and lifecycle management of the school estate, a key point raised in the report is that the quality of maintenance is “extremely variable” and there is a severe lack of good quality information on the condition of the schools estate.

This has led to the recommendation that the Department of Education (DfE):

  • Gathers all local condition data that currently exists, and implements a central condition database to manage this information.
  • Carries out independent building condition surveys on a rolling 20% sample of the estate each year to provide a credible picture of investment needs, repeating this to develop a full picture of the estate’s condition in five years and thereafter.

Lack of meaningful condition data is a major problem and it cannot be denied that it leads to a gap in knowledge when planning capital intervention. However beyond the issue of Capital replacement it is true that condition information, properly collected and managed is a fundamental underpinning of lifecycle management of any property and schools are as dependant on this as any other asset. The proposal to carry out a rolling programme of condition surveys is laudable and the industry should support it wholeheartedly, however there is a snag. Our industry is littered with examples of condition surveys carried out on a five year repeating or similar basis with no real regard for how the data is collected; how the data is to be held and how the data is to be used!

The proposal to carry out a rolling programme of condition surveys is laudable and the industry should support it wholeheartedly, however there is a snag. Our industry is littered with examples of condition surveys carried out on a five year repeating or similar basis with no real regard for how the data is collected; how the data is to be held and how the data is to be used!

The track record, for the most part, has been about data collected in variable form with no real regard for the need or the use it should be put to. This has resulted in huge abortive investment in generating condition data that then degrades very quickly; does not inform the asset management process and most likely is collected again in five years time in a different form. It will be a travesty if a national condition survey is carried out without learning from the mistakes of the past.

This means that when specifying the survey, the DfE should:

  • Standardise the format of the data: Shortly to be published are new standards for the measurement of maintenance, published by the RICS and a new BS (8544) for the lifecycle costing of maintenance. The DfE should learn from the Ministry of Justice, who are in the final stages of a data collection exercise using the format of the new standards and apply the standards intelligently, thereby collecting data across the schools estate in what will be a common, industry standard, format.
  • Simplify the process of data collection by using methods that embed the new standards and use technology to collect the data and format it in a consistent way.
  • Make sure that the data collected is stored in a data “Hub” that allows modelling of the data, not just to establish where the greatest need for capital replacement lies but to develop a capability to focus ongoing maintenance practice where it is most needed.

The continuing shift in estimate of the extent of backlog maintenance in schools from the original £8bn to the current £22bn demonstrates the lack of transparency and quality of the base data available – who amongst us believes that the £22bn figure is accurate?

And this is where the whole schools system demonstrates its greatest flaw and the reason why there is poor knowledge of condition and why that condition has been allowed to deteriorate over time, I speak of course, of the devolved budget process. All of the current activity to understand condition, generate information and invest in schools will not lead to a long term solution until this issue is addressed.