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Capital funding pot increasingly ‘preserve of the rich’

Schools are stealthily being encouraged to stump up more of their own cash to access capital funding for building repairs, it has been claimed.

Schools Week analysis shows half of academies that offered to cough up higher amounts were awarded money through the Condition Improvement Fund (CIF) this year.

This is up from just 35 per cent the year before, and is higher than the one in five schools that applied saying they could only contribute a minimal amount.

“This system undoubtedly favours those schools with greater financial wherewithal,” funding consultant Tim Warneford said.

“It’s a stealthy way of doing it because they are never going to make the claim [that] the chances of you being successful are increased by the level of your financial contribution.”

CIF guidance states the Department for Education’s priority in administering the fund “is to address significant condition needs” to keep “buildings safe and in good working order”.

But access to the fund – aimed at single-academy trusts or those with fewer than five schools – is highly competitive.

Number of approved projects falls

Of the 4,363 eligible schools, just under half applied for cash. However, just 866 projects from 3,033 applications were approved with £450 million awarded.

This is a near-60 per cent fall on projects since 2020-21, when ministers gave 2,104 schemes more than £563 million through the scheme.

Applications can get an extra six points based on the amount of cash they commit towards the cost of the project.

Although marks given are up to 100, experts have said it can make a big difference given the competitiveness.

Of the 381 bids given top marks for contributing 30 per cent of the bill, 190 (49.9 per cent) were given the green light, figures obtained through a Freedom of Information request suggest.

The approval rate for applications awarded six marks rose by more than two-fifths, from 35 per cent, since the last funding round.

Meanwhile, just under 21 per cent of schools paying less than 5 per cent of the bill – which are awarded zero points – were given the go-ahead. This represents a fall of about a quarter in 12 months. 

Those given a funding score of six also accounted for more successful applications overall this year (22 per cent) than any other banding. Last year the figure stood at 13 per cent.

‘More vital for schools to put money in’

Warneford added this year’s figures had been inflated by the uptick in approvals for schools paying more.

“That £450 million would only have gone so far [without school contributions]. The only other way to artificially keep the number of projects up would be to just fund the lower-cost programmes.

“As the number of awards gets less and less, then it makes it even more vital for schools if they can afford [to put money in], then they really ought to.”

Island Learning Trust chief finance officer Phil Reynolds, whose multi-academy trust runs three schools, said it was not fair if schools with “severe” need were missing out.

But he added trusts with “significant reserves” should be asked to use that money on their estates because “rather than it sitting in a bank account, it will be used”.

The DfE also said its intention was to “fund applicants with the highest priority and most pressing need, but only where the proposed project is appropriately planned and presents best value for money”.

Each bid is “assessed by two different assessors from two different external companies, with around a third undergoing moderation”, it explained.

DfE insists applicants ‘not prioritised’ by contribution

Applications “are not prioritised” based on the amount of cash stumped up by schools, it added, as financial contributions represent “only a maximum of six out of the total 100 points available”.

Of the 100 points, 60 are available under project need,15 for project planning and 25 for project cost.

Stuart Ellis

“Points gained or lost through evidence of urgency of need, risk of school closure, cost certainty and project deliverability will have a much greater impact on an application’s overall score,” a spokesperson said.

Despite this, schools and trusts have complained that vital work is not getting funded.

The funding policy has also driven some trusts to merge, including the Compass Academy Trust which has four schools in Bromley. Trusts with more than five schools automatically get capital funding through the school condition allowance.

Trust chief executive Stuart Ellis said with “guaranteed funding, you know what you’re playing with and that seems a much more strategic way to run a business”.

Compass had all five of its bids – which received funding scores of zero and one – for CIF cash rejected this year.

Ellis added: “It’s an inequitable system as not all trusts can generate the income or reserves to support [high] contribution levels.”

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