School buildings

Academy trust hopes merger will ease repair worries

DfE approved just one in three bids for money from the latest round of the condition improvement fund

DfE approved just one in three bids for money from the latest round of the condition improvement fund

7 Jul 2023, 15:00

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A small academy trust refused cash for vital repairs is set to merge with another chain in part so that it can access regular capital funding.

Schools Week analysis shows that the Department for Education approved just one in three bids for money from the latest round of the condition improvement fund (CIF). 

Trusts with fewer than five schools or 3,000 pupils must bid for cash to keep buildings in “safe and good working order”. Larger trusts automatically receive capital funding through the school condition allowance (SCA).

The four-school Compass Academy Trust has had four of 14 funding bids for maintenance work approved over the past two years.

Stuart Ellis
Stuart Ellis

Stuart Ellis, its chief executive, said until this year, he had been refused funding to fix a “failing” boiler and a roof that was leaking water into a school corridor.

He forked out more than £80,000 on temporary repairs while waiting for the CIF cash. 

He has now launched a bid to merge with the Connect Schools Academy Trust, hoping finally to be able to receive guaranteed sums to maintain his estate. 

In merger consultation documents, the trusts said they “will be given a guaranteed annual amount” for capital work.

‘Frustrating’

Ellis said: “Some of our bids have had to be resubmitted a number of times over a number of years, while some have been successful first time. Of course [it’s frustrating]. 

“The consequence sometimes of not getting the funding that we really feel we need – whether that be for a roof or a boiler – is then we have to find further money out of our own reserves to mend and make do until the funding is approved.”

The boiler problem was found in 2018, but Compass only received funding after three snubbed CIF applications.

The roof started leaking in 2017. It was the subject of three separate bids, the last of which was approved. 

Ellis said the government should give “all trusts” the same kind of funding. He estimated the merged trust would receive about £600,000 through SCA.

A damning National Audit Office report released last week found years of chronic underinvestment have meant 700,000 children across England are educated in structures requiring major fixes. 

The watchdog revealed a £2 billion annual capital funding shortfall and that more than a third of school buildings were past their “use-by date”.

CIF issues ‘exacerbating cost pressures’

Figures obtained through a Freedom of Information request reveal only 1,033 of the 3,061 (33.7 per cent) applications lodged for this year’s CIF were given the go-ahead. 

Our findings also show responsible bodies that committed more of their own cash for the maintenance projects were more likely to win funding.

Stephen Morales, the chief executive of the Institute of School Business Leadership, said issues surrounding CIF were increasing the levels of “disrepair” in schools across the country. 

This was also “exacerbating cost pressures on schools as they’re having to use revenue in their reserves to fund capital projects”.

Ellis stressed the “main drivers” of the merger were to improve “educational capacity and financial sustainability”.

But he added: “Some people may argue that the amount of money you get through SCA is lower than CIF, but you are at least in control of the timing and the use of that money. 

“Those entities that are large enough to attract guaranteed sums can at least strategically plan their ongoing estates programme and later development.”

Sir David Carter, the former national schools commissioner, described the differing funding arrangements for small and larger trusts as an “incentive” to grow.

It would “probably create some inequities”, but it was “one of a number of reasons why trusts are thinking about mergers”.

The merger between Compass and Connect is expected to take place in September next year. The proposals will be discussed during the next London advisory board meeting on Thursday, July 13.

The Department for Education has been approached for comment. 

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