School leaders have warned vital building repairs might not be completed after the government quietly doubled the school contribution required to secure top marks when applying for grants.
The Department for Education has published guidance on the 2022-23 condition improvement fund (CIF), a pot for repairs, improvement and some expansion work on school estates.
Standalone academies, small multi-academy trusts, sixth-form colleges and some voluntary-aided schools have to bid for the cash, with larger trusts and maintained schools funded differently.
Projects are scored out of 100 for consideration, with some points dependent on school contribution levels.
Last year applicants could score top marks in one section of the bid if they contributed at least 10 per cent for projects over £1 million, 15 per cent for projects over £100,000 and 25 per cent for lower-cost projects.
But this year’s guidance says all applicants must pay at least 30 per cent of the cost to achieve full marks for contributions, regardless of project size.
While only six points are now contribution-linked, this is up from five last year. Competition for such cash is also fierce, meaning schools feel “under pressure” to accrue marks wherever they can, said funding consultant Tim Warneford.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, added funding greater proportions meant “additional pressure” on budgets.
He added: “Members have already told us that they find it very difficult to access the CIF, and this looks like it will only make matters worse.
Whiteman said the government should be making it “easier not harder” for schools to access repairs cash.
Repairing or replacing all defects in England’s schools would cost £11.4 billion, Department for Education estimates show.
But analysis published last week by House of Commons library researchers noted planned DfE capital spending this year is down by a quarter on 2009-10 levels.
Warneford said most of his clients could “barely get to 15 per cent” contributions.
Schools can use spare cash or borrow to fund their contributions. But Warneford said few of his clients typically borrowed, and noted that they would still have to meet borrowing affordability criteria and pay interest.
He said such funding rounds raised a “moral dilemma”. The rules are “punishing” schools which consistently repair where possible from existing budgets, compared to others which have not and can thus show stronger need and reserves.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of leaders’ union ASCL, said CIF should be linked directly to need, rather than making schools “jump through hoops”.
“Raising the bar” on contributions “obviously discriminates against schools and trusts which are the most financially hard-pressed”, he added.
Warneford wrote on his blog that cynical observers “may deduce this is a deliberate squeeze on standalone trusts, and another push towards being kettled into joining a MAT”.
In August, the government warned small trusts that they should fund urgent works themselves rather than seek funding if they had usable reserves.
Warneford acknowledged the case for making trusts with larger reserves pay more, but added: “Poor schools with no money will get no marks if they can’t put money in.”
Officials said schools were not obliged to make contributions where it was unaffordable, and could prioritise obtaining points elsewhere.
Other changes also raised eyebrows. Applicants have always been advised to seek independent surveys, but this year’s guidance explicitly warns that surveys by manufacturers or contractors seeking the work will be rejected.
Officials noted vested interests involved, but Warneford said funding independent surveys put further pressure on budgets and could deter applications altogether.
Tony Mills, sales director at waterproofing system supplier Triflex, said “very few schools can afford” roof condition surveys, relying on quoting contractors like them to provide them.
He also questioned whether larger trusts would face equivalent strings attached to their repairs grants.