FORMULA capital, the new grant for schools to spend on improving buildings, is available next month. It will be paid to every school in the country - except city technology colleges and brand-new schools - irrespective of age and state of repair.
The idea is that, in return for taking greater responsibility for the upkeep of their buildings - previously entirely in the hands of education authorities - schools will be able to make the improvements they really want.
The Department for Education and Employment has pledged pound;190 million to the scheme. It says the grants are not to be spent on "minor routine repairs" and maintenance, but on "capital repairs" and capital building works.
These may include roof repairs, upgrading security, replacing a boiler plant, or converting and refurbishing classrooms for specialist use, such as a new computer or music room.
New buildings lie beyond the scope of formula capital, although not necessarily beyond "seed challenge" capital (see story below). New equipment - such as computers - may only be bought if it forms part of a new teaching room being funded by formula capital.
Although the department has emphasised that the aim of the new grant is to empower heads and governors, schools will still be required to agree a list of the most pressing building repairs with their local authority.
If urgent capital repairs are needed, says the department, "we would expect the grant to be used for these purposes before other improvements". For instance, if a school badly needs to replace a boiler or a leaky flat roof, it would be ill-advised to spend its formula capital on a glamorous project, such as refurbishing the library.
But if a school is choosing between, say, repairing draughty windows or improving an uncomfortable staffroom, it is unclear to what extent it must have the authority's agreement.
"There could be problems if the school has some wacky idea for improvements which are not part of the LEA programme," said Peter Downes, an education consultant. "But my reading of the guidelines is that although schools have to consult the LEA about the project, they don't necessarily have to agree it."
This view appears to be shared by the DFEE. A spokesman said: "My understanding is that schools can make up their own minds. Heads know best where the repairs are."
The situation will also vary considerably from one authority to another because of the different ways that they define "minor repairs" and capital work.
In Lancashire, for example, only spending more than pound;10,000 counts as "capital". According to Clive Lockwood, Lancashire's building and development manager, this means that very few primary schools in his county will qualify for enough money to undertake "capital" repairs.
It seems likely that, for the first year at least, the majority of schools will have little choice but to spend their formula capital on basic repairs, rather than on more imaginative improvements that might serve to enhance children's learning.
Kathy James, at the National Association of Head Teachers, advises heads to look for projects that will save them revenue in the long term - such as laying new Tarmac on a playground to save on the cost f regularly having to hose down an old, cracked one.
When it comes to putting out tenders for substantial repair work - new boilers or new roofs, for instance, as opposed to interior and exterior redecoration- some schools might choose to pay the local authority's property service to undertake the management process on their behalf.
Those that do it themselves may still get local authority advice, as well as lists of approved local contractors. They must also ensure work complies with the department's construction standards.
WHAT WILL WE GET?
FORMULA capital will be calculated thus: pound;10 per primary pupil, pound;15 per secondary pupil, pound;30 per special needs pupil, plus a lump sum of pound;4,000. So, a primary school with 400 pupils will receive pound;8,000 next year, and a secondary with 1,000 pupils pound;19,000.
To finance larger projects, schools will be allowed to accumulate the money by rolling it over for up to three years; it may even be possible to get the following year's grant a year early. Schools may also choose to pool the cash with other schools and use it collectively - for instance in an education action zone.
For more substantial building work, local authorities will be allocated the new "seed challenge capital" - an average of pound;200,000 per local authority. Schools can bid for this to top up money they have raised themselves. Three-quarters of the amount schools contribute must be from sponsorship or fund-raising, but a quarter can be drawn from formula capital or revenue savings .
HOW TO USE THE MONEY
BEFORE putting a project out to tender, heads must be satisfied that the specifications have been drawn up correctly, with the help of a qualified professional, such as an architect, engineer, electrician. Poor specifications may mean schools fail to get what they had hoped for.
Crucially, independent professional advice is needed to assess bids for the work.
"Otherwise all the contractors might come up with different solutions, and how would you know which was the right one?" says Stephen Alderton, head of commissioning property for Cambridgeshire.
The cheapest option is not necessarily the best, he adds.
Although a professional adviser costs money - perhaps six to 15 per cent of the total - he or she will oversee the project from start to finish, keep tabs on the contractors, and also be insured in the event of anything going wrong.
Even if a school has building expertise on its governing body, Stephen Alderton argues that it is dangerous to assume that knowledge of, say, domestic plumbing or rewiring applies to a commercial situation - where there are many health and safety regulations.
Schools which take risks and do without professional advice could find themselves with a new boiler inadequate to heat the building, or new roofing felt fitted to a rotten deck, requiring further expensive work.
Schools also need to be aware that building costs easily escalate. They should start off with firm quotations, rather than estimates, and allow for inflation.
Timings may also prove very difficult to manage. Many schools will want to timetable building work for the summer holiday if possible, but if planning is delayed and they are unable to spend their formula capital within the agreed financial year, they could end up losing the money.