School buildings

Unspent buildings cash worth £36k to each school, claim unions

'Only sensible option' is to give unspent cash to schools, say leaders

'Only sensible option' is to give unspent cash to schools, say leaders

Schools with identified RAAC are being urged to put contingency plans in place in case of closure by the DfE

Schools would have on average £36,000 more to spend on maintaining and repairing their buildings if unspent capital cash had been re-allocated, unions have claimed.

Analysis by the School Cuts coalition – made up of the National Education Union and ASCL and NAHT school leaders’ unions – suggests the Department for Education underspent its capital funding allocation by more than £1 billion in 2022-23.

That came on top of a further underspend of £900 million in 2021-22.

However, the Department for Education said it did not recognise the figures, and pointed to conflicting data from the same period showing underspends of £321 million in 2022-23 and £469 million in 2021-22.

Underspends are usually returned to the Treasury, although in 2022-23, £500 million was repurposed into grants to improve energy efficiency.

According to the unions, if the 2022-23 underspend alone were redistributed to schools to spend on their own capital projects, this would have resulted in £82,000 more for the average secondary school and £27,000 for the average primary.

This would work out as £36,000 on average across both phases of school.

It follows a series of damning revelations about the state of school buildings in England, culminating in the RAAC crumbly concrete crisis, which reached breaking point last year.

Last year, the National Audit Office concluded that years of chronic underinvestment meant 700,000 children are now educated in school buildings needing major repairs, with a £2 billion yearly shortfall in funding revealed.

At least part of recent underspends has resulted from a slower-than-anticipated start to the school rebuilding programme, whose end date has now been pushed back.

Government’s figures conflict

The government has published conflicting figures on DfE capital underspends.

The Treasury’s public expenditure statistical analyses, published last July, shows an underspend of over £1 billion for 2022-23, while the DfE’s annual report and accounts, also published in July, shows an underspend of £321 million.

Luke Sibieta, research fellow at the Institute for Fiscal Studies, said it was “certainly true to say that the Department for Education has underspent on its capital budget in recent years”.

“This has mostly been driven by slow starts to the school and further education college rebuilding programmes.”

He said allocating underspends to other things “would have required the government to have scaled back its future plans for school and college rebuilding”.

“That being said, current plans for capital spending across government for the next parliament look very tight indeed. So there is also a good argument for spending money whilst you have it.”

‘Only sensible’ to give money to schools

Daniel Kebede
Daniel Kebede

Daniel Kebede, the NEU’s general secretary, said school buildings were “crumbling around our children as they try to learn”.

“If bureaucracy and mismanagement mean that the DfE is not allocating this money where it is so desperately needed, the only sensible option is to give it directly to schools.”

The NAHT’s Paul Whiteman said parents, leaders and teachers “will be baffled by the department’s inability to spend in full even the limited schools capital budget allocated to them by Treasury, at a time when schools are so clearly in desperate need of funds”.

Pepe Di’Iasio, ASCL’s leader, said public funding funding is “intended for the public benefit, not some sort of pass the parcel exercise between government departments”.

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