Welsh Government programme to modernise schools is generally well managed

Welsh Government programme to modernise schools is generally well managed

But it will need to clarify its expectations for the next phase and focus on some key risks if the funding and focus of the programme changes

The Welsh Government announced its 21st Century Schools and Education programme to build new and refurbish schools across Wales in 2009. Band A of the programme started in 2014. A report released by the Auditor General finds that the Welsh Government is generally managing the programme well but it but will need to clarify some detailed expectations and make adjustments in response to proposed changes in approach and funding to get better value from future public sector investment. 

The Welsh Government, local councils and further education institutions are collectively spending around £1.5 billion on the first phase (Band A) of a long-term plan to improve the condition and suitability of Wales’ schools. The Welsh Government also aims to achieve a range of educational and community benefits. The programme appears to be s broadly on track to achieve the intended number of projects. Of the 169 planned schools and further education projects in the programme, 132 schools and six further education projects have so far received formal Welsh Government approval. Of these, 59 are complete.

The Auditor General’s report finds that the programme is a significant step forward from the previous approach of patching up school buildings to make them last beyond their expected lifespan. Having certainty of funding over multiple years has meant that councils can take a long-term strategic approach.  At the outset, the Welsh Government and local government worked well together and as a result there is strong shared ownership of the programme. The Welsh Government put in place robust processes for reviewing projects and it has continued to strengthen those arrangements.  It also has adopted a flexible approach to managing the programme’s finances.  Few projects, so far, have gone over-budget.

The report identifies some areas for strengthening. There are for example gaps where the Welsh Government was not clear in setting out its expectations at the start. In particular, the Welsh Government did not set out in detail the wider benefits that it hoped to get from its large investment. There are also concerns that some of the new buildings are not achieving the high environmental standards expected of them.

While the number of schools in good condition has increased, there will still be a significant number of schools in need of replacement or major refurbishment when Band A ends in 2019. The Welsh Government plans to make some changes to the way that the next band of investment (Band B) will operate. The Welsh Government is planning to introduce a form of private finance – the Mutual Investment Model – to part fund the programme.  It is also planning to get better value for money by encouraging more standardised elements to the new builds and standardising costs.  While there are strong value for money arguments for greater standardisation, the Welsh Government will need to manage the risk that centralisation undermines the collaborative ethos that has characterised the programme to date.

The report makes a number of recommendations to ensure the programme continues to stay on track including;

  • developing an up-to-date, reliable picture of the condition and suitability of the Welsh education estate to help inform the next phases of the programme;
  • implementing  more cost effective procurement of projects to include regional procurement and consulting with partners and industry experts to bring greater standardisation to projects; and
  • ensuring that the governance arrangements for the programme remain fit for purpose as changes are made to the way the programme is both managed and funded.

Auditor General, Huw Vaughan-Thomas said:

“The 21st Century Schools and Education programme has improved greatly on the previous approach to capital investment in our schools, most notably in taking a longer-term view of the investment required.  As the Welsh Government finalises its plans for the next phase of investment, from 2019 onwards, there is a need to focus now on some key areas such as managing the risks of a new type of funding and ensuring that the good collaborative working between Welsh Government and local government continues.  I hope that the Welsh Government will carefully consider the recommendations I make in this report to ensure it builds on progress so far to deliver on the ambitious goals it has set for the programme.”

The 21st Century Schools and Education Programme