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The importance of the right investment

23 February 2017

Yesterday, the National Audit Office released an interesting report on school buildings. In it are a number of choice facts and figures which could be difficult reading for some in the Department for Education (DfE). For example, there’s a question of whether DfE is spending money in the right places. The free school capital programme (£1 billion in 2015-16 rising to a peak of £1.4 billion in 2017-18) is forecast to create 57,500 surplus places and negatively impact 282 schools, 149 of whom were good and outstanding. The report goes into some detail about the problems associated with finding new school places while unearthing some surprising facts. DFE's new strategy for securing free school sites involves a £2.5 billion property purchase budget over the next four years, a sum which ranks the department alongside the top five housebuilders in terms of purchases. Twenty years after the school system sold lots of sites, government is buying back different sites in the same places at a much higher cost. However, as with the NAO report on school revenue funding in December, there is frustratingly little on the sixth form or post-16 aspects of this issue. NAO tend to second guess what the department themselves are doing so if the department is narrow minded, NAO's report may also miss some big points. For example, there is no mention of: The demographic pressures which required DfE to provide extra secondary places in the first place will flow through to post-16 in the 2020s, yet there is no support in place to effectively plan for it. DfE currently measures supply/demand from 5 to 16 but doesn't systematically do so post-16. Only two of the seven capital funds listed are open to colleges (just to sixth form colleges). There is no dedicated capital funding at all for the 600,000 DfE funded 16 to 18-year-olds in further education (FE) colleges. The DfE survey of the school estate covers the 23,000 schools and 90 sixth form colleges but excludes the 230 FE colleges. Data has, of course, been collected via post-16 area reviews but there are no plans I'm aware of to keep, use or update that data beyond March 2017. The report provides various figures on the number of new school places created but doesn't make clear if the numbers include new post-16 places. If even a small part of the money spent on school buildings was invested into the further education sector, the impact would be significant. That’s why the Association of Colleges is asking for fair funding for colleges in the Spring Budget in March. We want investment that supports every college to provide excellence, meet industry needs and help people move and progress into work. Fair funding for colleges is even more essential following the Brexit vote, to plug skills gaps, deliver the new Industrial Strategy and support better social mobility. Our education and training system needs to ensure that people are fully prepared for highly-skilled roles across our economy in order for the UK to compete on a global scale. A skilled workforce will be the backbone of this country’s future economic success. Colleges are key to making this a reality. Julian Gravatt is the Assistant Chief Executive of the Association of Colleges.