Only two of DfE’s 11 major projects ‘likely’ to achieve aims on time and budget

The DfE is offering schools and trusts improvement support to deal with Covid problems

Only two of the Department for Education’s 11 major projects are considered “likely” to achieve their aims and come in on time and on budget, according to government experts.

The Infrastructure and Projects Authority has highlighted its concerns over a series of flagship education initiatives, including the National Tutoring Programme, T-levels, teacher training reforms and the priority school building programme.

The body, part of the Treasury and Cabinet Office, provides scrutiny and advice on every department’s largest, most innovative or highest-risk projects.

Successful NTP rollout appeared ‘unachievable’ in March

Its recently published annual report and delivery confidence assessments for each project reveal it gave the National Tutoring Programme a red rating under its traffic-light evaluation system in March.

Red means “successful delivery of the project appears to be unachievable”, a finding likely to ring alarm bells and cause embarrassment at the DfE.

Launched last year, the NTP provides heavily subsidised tutoring sessions, which ministers say should be targeted at disadvantaged pupils. It forms a key part of the government’s vision for catch-up on “lost learning” during the pandemic.

For the NTP to have been rated red, the IPA must have identified “major issues with project definition, schedule, budget, quality and/or benefits delivery, which at this stage do not appear to be manageable or resolvable”. It was the only project ranked red at the department.

But a DfE spokesperson said it had since been upgraded to an amber rating, “due to the additional capacity and resources dedicated to the programme”.

The IPA says this means successful delivery is “feasible”, but “significant issues already exist, requiring management attention”.

DfE comments filed in the IPA’s report also say there has been “no deviation from the planned schedule”. The total cost of the NTP up to summer 2024 , including non-government costs, is listed as £523 million.

One in 10 PSBP2 school rebuilds late

Both the new school rebuilding programme and the second phase of the priority school building programme have also been handed an amber rating.

It comes on the same day the government named 50 more schools set to benefit from its new school rebuilding programme. The DfE told the IPA in March it had made “good progress”, however.

The PSBP has been the government’s main rebuilding project over the past decade for schools in the worst condition.

The second phase was supposed to see all 277 projects completed by 2022, but by 2018 it was clear not every work would be finished the deadline. The government blamed “a lack of interest from contractors”, “too ambitious” forecasts, and “complex” feasibility studies at the time.

Now the IPA has revealed it expects one in 10 PSBP2 projects to be delayed beyond the December 2021 deadline. Only “over 90 per cent” of projects have been contracted, and two projects have not even seen feasibility studies completed.

“Projects are more complex and are taking longer to deliver,” according to officials.

‘Tight timelines’ for ECF and NPQs

The rollout of the early career framework and national professional qualifications as part of an overhaul of teacher training also secured an amber rating.

The rating reflects risks including “tight timelines for suppliers to mobilise and recruit schools and cohorts” and market capacity alongside a commitment to a September 2021 launch for the ECF and new NPQs.

But an IPA review found in February that “whilst delivery timelines remain tight, critical milestones are being achieved”.

Doubts over cost-cutting drive

The Schools Commercial Strategy was handed an “amber-red” rating. Such a score generally means “successful delivery of the project is in doubt, with major risks or issues apparent in a number of areas”.

The strategy is a large-scale DfE cost-cutting plan for schools, with officials hoping a £157.9 million investment can cut £2.67 billion in non-staff spending. It aims to “support schools to achieve value for money on their non-staff spend, and change the behaviours of those in scope to become more proactive in reviewing their spend and methods in which they can reduce it”.

But the DfE blamed “ongoing recruitment activity” for the IPA’s rating, saying it had led to “delivery challenges for projects requiring volume of specialist resource”.

Time and effort were being “diverted away from project delivery to recruit the right resources” in certain areas, according to DfE notes alongside the IPA’s judgement.

Soaring costs of T-levels

T-levels were also handed an amber-red rating, with those in charge of their rollout meeting with IPA officials on a monthly basis and DfE’s own major projects team also providing support to ensure plans “remain on track”.

The documents show officials now estimate their total cost to the government and others between 2016 and 2023 at £1.1 billion—up almost tenfold on the projected costs of £155.6 million a year ago.

The only explanation given is that the figures were “refined in the course of additional planning through the spending review”, and that Covid had had a “considerable impact” over the past year.

The DfE also said Covid had introduced “new levels of uncertainty”, with a potential impact on further rollout in September.

The first T-level courses began last September as part of a government’s “revolution in technical education” designed to improve its standing alongside A-levels. The government only estimated 2,500 pupils would begin the first handful of courses, however, and only 1,300 were enrolled in October.

But a DfE spokesperson told Schools Week T Levels’ rollout had always been gradual to “ensure the qualifications are high-quality and successful from the start”.

The only two of 11 major DfE projects to be rated green or amber-green by the IPA were plans to deliver more high-quality apprenticeships and the Institute of Technology programme.

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  1. Bryan Tookey

    The NTP will have been hit by the school closures and the number of pupils being asked to isolate. The programme launched in November, and many schools were set to start in January. But the closure of schools for January, Februrary and a week fo March meant that approximately 1/3 of the available term time was lost; and then, in Summer term, the large number of absent pupils meant that rather than catch up, many tutor programmes fell further behind. This does not invalidate the red (or amber) verdict of the Infrastructure and Projects Authority review, but it does seem harsh to criticise the DfE for the failure (especially as the department got 2 days notice of the winter closure).