Value for Money Examination  10:  Planning fort Second Level School Acomodation   Summary


Background

The Department of Education spent ?39m on the second level school building programme in 1995. Expenditure on the programme in 1996 is estimated at ?30m.  At the end of June 1996, the Department had approved 240 major capital projects for the provision or improvement of second level school accommodation, estimated to cost a total of ?179m. A further 76 major projects had been approved in principle but their cost had not yet been estimated.

Nationally, enrolment in second level schools is expected to increase up to 1997/98 after which it is expected to decline significantly. Within the national trend, different patterns of change in enrolment level may occur in individual catchment areas. The complex pattern of changes in enrolment has implications for the extent and timing of provision or improvement of accommodation in second level schools.

Apart from changes in enrolment, the scale of capital investment in school building projects is influenced by a number of factors such as the condition of existing accommodation, proposals for amalgamation of schools and policies for curriculum expansion and development.

Focus of Study

This study focused on the adequacy of the Department of Education's systems for planning and managing the provision of second level school accommodation in the context of the projected long-term decline in enrolment levels and a continuing demand for building projects which far exceeds the available level of annual capital funding.

Recent Policy Developments

Following a wide-ranging consultation process about all aspects of education policy, including the holding of a National Education Convention and the publication of a White Paper entitled Charting our Education Future, a number of key policy decisions in relation to planning school accommodation were taken. These represent a major structural response to the issues dealt with in this report and are consistent with most of the recommendations on these issues made in the report.

Planning the School Accommodation Programme

The Department of Education has traditionally adopted a reactive approach to the provision of school accommodation in so far as it responds to demands for school places and building improvements rather than formulating and implementing a long-term strategic plan. Historically, the provisipn of school buildings usually resulted from local or private initiatives. The Department sees itself as being a partner together with the local promoters in the provision of school places.

A Commission on School Accommodation Needs was established in March 1996 to examine and make recommendations about school accommodation issues at first and second level. In addition, it is likely that some of the Department's administrative functions in relation to accommodation projects will be transferred to the proposed regional education boards. The implications of these initiatives for the work of the Department's Planning and Building Unit are currently being assessed by independent consultants.

The Department s current approach to assessing proposed accommodation projects is designed to ensure that there is an identifiable need for each individual project which is approved. However, getting best value from the available resources requires that the most pressing needs are identified early enough for appropriate and timely action to be taken. A number of changes to its current procedures would assist the Department to do this more effectively.

Amalgamation of Schools

The Department should adopt a more proactive approach on the rationalisation of school accommodation.

Inventory of Accommodation

A comprehensive current inventory of second level school accommodation would enhance the Department's ability to assess the extent of current needs and to plan and evaluate the ongoing building programme. The extensive amount of information currently held in the Department's paper files cannot in practice be used for this purpose because it is not readily accessible and some of it is out of date.

Monitoring Occupancy Levels

The Department should monitor the level of occupancy in second level schools generally in order to help it to identify areas or schools where accommodation problems may exist or may be likely to arise.

Local Area Enrolment Projections

While national enrolment projections are prepared periodically within the Department, projections for individual school catchinent areas are not produced. The availability of these projections would assist the Department in planning its accommodation programme by pinpointing areas with potential accommodation  difficulties in time to allow for considered action. However, the feasibility of producing such projections needs to be investigated because of the resources required and potential methodological problems.

Prioritisation of Projects

Since the total estimated cost of projects approved in principle exceeds the available annual funding, choices have to be made about which projects have the highest priority. Building projects are currently recommended for funding on the basis of consensus judgments by Department officials having regard to a number of factors including the availability, adequacy and safety of existing accommodation. However,  no formal set of fixed quantified criteria exists. A list of recommended projects is submitted for senior management and ministerial approval and amendments may be made to the selection at this stage.

Without a proper prioritisation system based on predetermined objective criteria, the Department cannot demonstrate that the building programme addresses the areas of greatest need among the many projects proposed. While this report was being finalised, the Department indicated that it had commenced the development of a formal prioritisation procedure involving a points system based on relevant factors for ranking projects.

Setting Programme Targets

Setting targets in terms of the number of new or replacement school places to be provided or the average building cost per pupil place provided would assist in monitoring and evaluating the accommodation programme. The Department plans to introduce overall targets for the output of the school accommodation programme.

Management Information

Readily accessible and up-to-date management information about school building projects would enhance the Department's capacity to assess its operational efficiency and to highlight reasons for delays and backlogs in handling applications. It would also facilitate financial planning and monitoring and the control of expenditure on projects. In this regard, the Department is introducing a new computerised management system which it expects to be fully operational by early 1997.

Extensions to New Schools

The Department is currently funding the construction of large permanent extensions to a number of schools which themselves were built within the past three years. This suggests that the project appraisal process for the original school building projects seriously under-estimated the need for accommodation.

The Department states that it often provides accommodation on a phased basis because of budgetary constraints. It accepts that additional costs arise because there are two projects instead of one but considers that these are minimised by the imposition of cost and space limits for projects. However, keeping within the limits prescribed does not mean that appropriate accommodation is provided at the least possible cost.

Site Acquisition

In 1995, the Department attempted to sell an unwanted site valued at ?1.lm but a local campaign for the retention of the land as an amenity area resulted in the local authority rezoning the land from residential to amenity status. This decision substantially reduced the market value of the land. Legal advice obtained on this matter is currently being considered by the Department.

Disposal of Schools

Secondary school authorities are required to undertake to refund to the Department the unexpired value of any grant received in the event that grant-aided buildings cease to be used for educational purposes. The amount of any such refund is negotiated on the basis of the amount of grant aid given and the period of time from when the funding was granted. An estimate of the value of the ts interest in all school buildings (and sites, where appropriate) would be desirable for control and accounting purposes.