Purse is now in your hands

7th April 2000 at 01:00
Ministers have promised schools control over a new grant for buildings work. But they will still have to negotiate with education authorities over how they spend it. Diana Hinds reports.

GOVERNORS who enjoy making decisions on how to improve their school buildings will welcome the Government's new formula capital grants which take effect this month. Formula capital is a national entitlement for all schools, which gives heads and governing bodies more responsibility for their buildings upkeep and a bigger stake in deciding what repairs and improvements should be carried out.

The grant will be allocated according to a formula of pound;10 per primary pupil and pound;15 per secondary pupil, plus a lump sum of pound;4,000. A primary school with 400 pupils will, therefore, receive pound;8,000 and a 1,000-strong secondary school, pound;19,000. Bigger sums can be amassed by rolling the money over for a maximum of three years.

Formula capital is not to be spent on minor repairs and maintenance, but is intended for capital repairs and other building work, which might include major roof repairs, rewiring, replacing a boiler, or converting a general teaching room or hut to specialist use (for example, music or information technology).

Susan Julian, assistant education officer (capital development) at Waltham Forest, north-east London, believes formula capital is a positive development, which "will make the difference between schools getting work done, and not getting work done".

George Phipson, general secretary of the Association of Heads of Foundation and Aided Schools, anticipates that spending the new grant will be "a very exciting task" for governors.

"As former grant-maintained schools know, it can really draw people in if they see the school as their responsibility," he added.

Others are more circumspect however. Chris Gale, chair of the National Governors' Council, said: "With this kind of sum, we are very limited in what we can do. I'd hesitate to roll it over; it's probably better to spend it now than risk losing it. 'Take the money and run' is what I'm advising members to do."

Margaret Riddell, at Information for School and College Governors, says her governing body has already decided it must save all it can to help finance the higher salaries when teachers cross the new threshold.

"The reality is that our formula capital will go into maintenance and rpairs; we'll just have to fudge the books and say it's capital spending."

What distinguishes a minor repair from a capital one may not always be easy to determine, and will vary with authorities, according to where spending levels are set. In Lancashire, for example, spending over pound;10,000 counts as capital. But according to Clive Lockwood, building and development manager for the authority, the vast majority of the county's primaries will receive less than that, and will therefore be unable to proceed at all without further funding from the council.

The spending of formula capital could well put some strain on relations between schools and local authorities. The Department for Education and Employment says that heads and governors should "agree capital investment priorities within the local education authority's asset management plan". If urgent capital repairs are needed, it expects the grant to be used for these purposes before other improvements.

But the guidance is somewhat open-ended, and does not make local authority agreement an absolute condition for school's spending decisions.

"There will be an issue about coming to agreement about priorities, and it will depend on the kind of relationship between authorities and schools," said Mr Lockwood. "Some schools may say, we don't want to do a repair now, we want an improvement. We are trying to encourage them to do the repairs first."

Schools with a major repair problem - like a leaking roof, or worn-out boiler - will almost certainly be the first to recognise that this must be attended to before they start work on, say, a new computer suite. But in the absence of urgent priorities, it seems likely that schools can choose either lesser repairs or improvements to a staffroom, playground or teaching block.

"My understanding is that schools can make up their own minds. The authority can ask schools to put their formula capital towards bigger projects, but they can't force schools," said a DFEE spokesman.

Margaret Riddell notes: "The temptation for schools is to think: 'at long last we'll replace our mobile classroom'. But they will still need to work with the local authority. My advice to governors is be prudent, think hard about what your priorities are, and don't embark on huge capital improvements without assurance from the local authority that it will make a contribution."

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