Skip to main content

Local Education Partnerships

Volume 514: debated on Wednesday 21 July 2010

You addressed me as Mr Speaker, which is flattering, but incorrect. I am not yet the Speaker. Mr Gray is perfectly sufficient.

Thank you, Mr Gray. That was my first mess-up.

The focus in recent weeks has been on the Building Schools for the Future programme, but I wanted to bring this debate to Westminster Hall because the mechanisms underlying that programme—local education partnerships—have been overlooked. They are public-private partnerships between local authorities and a private sector partner selected to carry out contracting for the local authority. I have initiated this debate because I want to talk about the inefficiencies of local education partnerships and a certain lack of democratic accountability.

On value for money, I have previously worked with academy sponsors and a number have come to me in little less than despair about the measures and mechanisms that they have to go through with local education partnerships, to the extent that one even told me that the introduction of the partnership would be enough to put them off sponsoring another academy. I shall give a few details of an academy sponsor who sponsored an academy before the local education partnership came into effect, and then did so again after that, to give the Minister the benefit of experiences that that academy sponsor related to me about the way the partnership process works.

I shall also speak about the democratic accountability of local education partnerships. I shall refer, for illustration only, to a specific case in my constituency: the rebuild of Elmlea infants school, which badly needs a rebuild and has a very hard-working head teacher. That rebuild will not be done under the Building Schools for the Future programme.

First, on the academy sponsor and its concerns about efficiencies, the sponsor told me that the local education partnership in Bristol—the contractor partner was Skanska—was 90% owned by Skanska as contractor and 10% owned by the local authority. Obviously, that raises questions. The interests not of the school but of Skanska were put first, because of its stake in the LEP. Moreover, the local authority was a 10% shareholder, so it was compromised because the higher the building costs for Skanska, the higher the fees to the LEP. It was apparent that the school’s interests were not represented in that dynamic.

My second concern is about responsibilities. A partnership may function very well, but there may be a lack of accountability as to who takes responsibility for what. That problem has been raised frequently in connection with academy projects. In a local education partnership academy project, the school that is converting to an academy is not the client; the local authority is the client. In the case that I am referring to—it may be replicated because of the structural nature of LEPs—the council is reluctant to accept responsibility for the contract, because the school that it is looking after will no longer be its school. There is an imbalance in responsibility for the LEP contract and responsibility for the school afterwards. During discussions on the rebuild and the education to be provided in the new academy, the school was unable to speak directly to the architect dealing with the build but had to go through the contractor, Skanska, which did not necessarily have the expertise that the school had in providing buildings fit for educational purpose.

On costs, the school, which was being sponsored by sponsors who had sponsored other academies, was forced to take on the LEP procurement process rather than open tender. That caused much concern and some frustration, because the sponsor had managed to bring in an academy on time and under budget—the Minister will know that that is unusual for academy procurement and set-up. The sponsors had proved to be extremely efficient and had found extremely efficient partners, and they wanted to replicate that best practice, but were unable to do so because of the rigidity of the local education partnership. They also reported that Skanska had an overhead and profit margin of 8% plus, compared with the market rate of 4%. The sponsor estimated that that deprived the school of £500,000 of new build for that element alone.

On legal fees, because of the nature of the local educational partnership, there were three sets of solicitors. There were no challenges to the legal costs, which were substantial and, I would suggest, in a number of cases arose from replication of a task.

Those are illustrations of a wider problem that I am sure is replicated up and down the country. In another case, a school was forced to take the LEP ICT option, even though it already had its own ICT equipment that it could run itself, and which was fully functioning and used to great effect. That equipment was not compatible with the LEP version of ICT equipment required, so it was replaced at great cost, with complex contracts having to be negotiated. New ICT equipment had to be bought in at the taxpayer’s expense, and the school’s existing, perfectly functional ICT equipment became redundant because of the rigidity of the procurement process.

I could go on and on—I have a long list of inefficiencies, but I know that the Minister has better things to do, so I will not do that. Those examples of waste were provided to me by just one academy sponsor, which came to me with its concerns, but they are an indication of the kind of waste that is occurring under local educational partnerships. In this climate of economic austerity, I suggest that such waste should be looked at carefully.

My second concern is slightly less reported and has to do with democratic accountability and transparency. To illustrate my point, I will refer to the rebuild of Elmlea infants school in my constituency. The infants school shares a site with Elmlea junior school. Both schools have playgrounds and Elmlea junior school has a large playing field, which is an excellent facility for the community and is used to fulfil the curriculum requirements of both the infants and the junior school. The infants school is in urgent need of a rebuild—it has classrooms with no windows. The head teacher works hard for her children and the school is successful despite its substandard facilities.

The local educational partnership was responsible for drawing up a projected rebuild of Elmlea infants school. All along the line, the LEP process has derailed, been postponed and caused confusion among almost all the stakeholders—the local authority, head teachers in the schools and, most particularly, parents and the public. In January 2009, a feasibility study presented options 1, 2 and 3 for a rebuild of Elmlea infants school—this will get technical, but it illustrates the point. Options 1 and 2 were based on rebuilding on the existing site, and option 3 was based on rebuilding on the junior school’s playing field.

Throughout the process, it seemed that there was an LEP bias towards option 3. Option 2 was presented as the favoured option in January 2009, but rather undemocratically and quickly—it is difficult to get to the bottom of why this happened—option 3 was suddenly presented as the preferred option. All sorts of questions were raised about why that happened. Questions were asked by parents and by myself at public meetings, because incomparable costs had been presented in an attempt to move public opinion and the opinion of those in the local authority in favour of option 3—the rebuild on the playing field. The key question is why the LEP was able to provide incomparable costs. I have asked for breakdowns of the costs for the individual options so that the process can be conducted in a transparent manner and value for money can be ascertained; but to date, I have not received those breakdowns, so it is difficult to see how the money is being spent.

In conjunction with the knowledge that, in the academies process, 90% of the LEP was owned by Skanska, it has been asked whether Skanska’s interests are driving the school rebuild, or whether the rebuild is being driven by the interests of the school, parents and education. In my constituency, it has become a massive issue. The lack of transparency has delayed the process because people are seeking democratic accountability and answers. The school is worried that the rebuild it needs so much will be jeopardised because the LEP process has been so long-winded and has evaded so many questions that need answering.

I could go on and on about the failings and the questions that hang over the local educational partnership, but I will mention just a few. The preferred option for rebuild presented to the elected member for education on the council was changed at the last minute, with no debate or scrutiny. That put people on the council in a difficult position. The local educational partnership refers to independent partners, such as KEY Educational Associates, as independent in their scrutiny, whereas in fact at least one member of that independent body is employed by Skanska, so there is a question about that independence. More generally, democratic accountability has been poor.

In conclusion, I ask the Minister what his views are—if he has formed any—on the role of local educational partnerships, given that the Building Schools for the Future programme has been reviewed. Will he look closely at the value for money and the democratic accountability and efficiency represented by local educational partnerships, over which I have grave concerns?

May I say what a double pleasure it is, Mr Gray, to serve under your chairmanship again this afternoon?

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) on securing the debate, especially as it is her first in Westminster Hall. I also offer my congratulations on her recent election. I am sure that she will serve the people of Bristol North West for many years to come with the greatest distinction and dedication. Even if her endeavours this afternoon were not witnessed by a packed Chamber, the quality of her exposition of the problem, which showed great technical know-how, did her great credit. Her points about local education partnerships, waste, value for money, democratic accountability and transparency, are important.

I also congratulate my hon. Friend on her election to the Education Committee, and I hope that she will have a rather larger audience during that Committee’s deliberations. As a leading expert in the field, she brings us a wealth of experience and knowledge of a range of educational matters—we heard about one this afternoon—and I look forward to working closely with her and the rest of the Committee.

My hon. Friend wishes specifically to discuss the role of local education partnerships and academies in her part of Bristol. I am delighted to do that, but I shall first put matters into a wider context. In her excellent maiden speech, my hon. Friend eloquently described the huge disparity between the opportunities extended to the richest and the poorest children in her constituency—the achievement gap. That poverty of attainment marks too much of the educational system, particularly for those in the most deprived areas. She described it as

“a tale of two cities, whereby extreme poverty and deprivation exist side by side with some of the richest wards in the country.”—[Official Report, 2 June 2010; Vol. 510, c. 499.]

She is right, but that problem is by no means unique to Bristol North West or even the rest of Bristol. It is a sad reflection on our education system that, out of a cohort of 600,000 pupils, 80,000 are eligible for free school meals, of whom just 45 made it to Oxbridge last year.

Making opportunity more equal is the aim of the coalition Government in all of their policies, and it also guides our approach to education. That comes against the backdrop of the appalling state of public finances. Our first priority must be to reduce the deficit, but we must also ensure that we improve public services in order to improve the chances of every child. Because we prioritised education, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor was able to announce that we will protect front-line spending this year on schools, on 16-to-19 funding and on Sure Start. Because tackling educational inequality is at the heart of our reforms, we will introduce a pupil premium to ensure that money is better targeted at the poorest pupils. I know that my hon. Friend has contributed both energy and enthusiasm to that policy in the past and we are extremely grateful to her for that.

Because we are determined to ensure that every child—especially the poorest—has access to excellent teaching, we will double the number of highly accomplished graduates teaching in our schools, recruit hundreds more graduate teachers into areas of poverty where they can help to raise attainment in the most challenging places and, for the first time, fund the expansion of graduate teachers into primary schools. As my hon. Friend pointed out, we must ensure that we spend taxpayers’ money in the most efficient and responsible way possible at all times and on all elements of our programme, especially capital spending on refurbishing existing schools and building new ones—including, of course, academies.

It is deeply regrettable that, throughout its life, the Building Schools for the Future programme, which included academies, has been characterised by massive overspends, tragic delays and needless bureaucracy. Its startling inefficiency means that stopping the programme was the right thing to do. Having extended its scope, its budget bulged from £45 billion to £55 billion, and its time scale went from 10 years to a projected 18. Of the £250 million spent before building began, £60 million was spent on consultants or advisory costs to support layer upon layer of process. In some areas, it took more than two years to negotiate the bureaucracy, and that was before a single builder had been engaged or a single brick laid. Only 5% of the 3,500 secondary schools in this country were rebuilt, refurbished or received BSF funding for ICT—only 185 schools, which is astonishingly few given how much money was spent. Perhaps worst of all, considering the state of public finances, is that BSF schools cost three times what it costs to procure buildings in the commercial world, and twice what it costs to build a school in Ireland.

The programme could not be allowed to continue, so my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education announced on 5 July that we would end the previous Government’s school rebuilding programme. However, the end of the BSF programme does not mean the end of investing in our schools. We are still absolutely committed to rebuilding and refurbishing, but we do not believe that the BSF programme was spending taxpayers’ money anywhere near efficiently enough, and money wasted on that programme was money that could not be used elsewhere, either in schools or other parts of the education establishment. We want to review all ways in which schools are built to ensure that money is allocated more efficiently, less expensively and, most important, more fairly. The cancellation of BSF does not represent the end of capital investment in schools. The review announced on 5 July will consider how the Department invests capital money, and its recommendations will help to shape the design of future capital investment in schools to ensure that we have enough school places in enough good buildings where pupils can learn effectively.

I turn to local education partnerships. As the previous Government’s preferred mechanism for local areas procuring BSF building services, local education partnerships have been a major component of the old process. Although the reason for establishing LEPs was specifically to support BSF projects, some local authorities chose to use their LEPs for projects outside BSF, as happened in the case of Elmlea school, cited by my hon. Friend. However, whether or not LEPs are part of the BSF programme, they should take responsibility for offering value for money to the taxpayer in all their capital spending—indeed, we would expect nothing less. That is why we will be reviewing procurement and delivery models as part of the terms of reference in our capital review.

The aim of the review is to ensure that future capital investment represents good value for money and that it responds to schools’ real needs. The review is already under way, and I shall not pre-empt its findings today. It will report to Ministers in mid-September, and a forward plan for capital investment over the next spending review period will be produced by the end of the calendar year. However, it is as clear to me as it is to my hon. Friend that LEPs are part of a truly cumbersome process, which needs to be closely examined and fundamentally re-engineered to ensure that a higher proportion of our capital investment gets rapidly to the schools that need it most. I therefore congratulate my hon. Friend on the immense detail that she has given us on the LEP that covers her constituency.

Whatever the detailed outcome of the review, we must ensure that the views of head teachers, teachers, parents and local communities are more effectively and swiftly acted upon and that there is a much greater focus on achieving value for money. When it comes to procuring services to build schools, we should have proper accountability and real efficiency. That will be good for local areas, schools, pupils and the taxpayer.

I turn to the Bristol local education partnership. My hon. Friend said that the partnership was split 90% to Skanska and 10% to Bristol city council. I gather that the figures are 80% to Skanska, 10% Bristol city council and 10% to a local BSF partnership, which is a slightly different equation. I have deep sympathy with the plight of those in my hon. Friend’s constituency who have suffered from the excessive bureaucracy of the current process. I hope the situation at Elmlea school can be resolved for the long-term benefit of the pupils, and that a solution is found that is efficient and effective and that represents good value for money.

The Bristol LEP has delivered four PFI-funded schemes on time and on budget, with six further secondary school projects in various stages of completion and a further three academy projects either handed over or under construction. Aside from one slightly delayed handover of a new building, its track record has been generally solid in terms of budget, quality and programme. However, the LEP model in Bristol has not proved so adept in delivering smaller-scale primary school projects where the needs of the local communities required a greater level of consultation and understanding. We are aware of the demand of parents in north-west Bristol for more primary school places and for more choice in secondary schools. We will have to wait for greater certainty about the various ideas that have emerged from there and the outcome of the review before decisions can be made, but whatever comes out of the review, we can be sure that future investment will be characterised by speediness and value for money.

I reiterate our commitment to investing in schools in Bristol and around the country. We have set out a comprehensive programme of reforms, founded on the need to make opportunity more equal. Part of that will be to ensure that schools across the country that need rebuilding and renovation will, in future, receive that money in a more timely and efficient manner. That is the only way to give every pupil in Bristol and beyond a better chance of success.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on having considered the problem, and I would be more than happy were she to highlight further anomalies in the local education partnership. If she refers them to the Secretary of State or the Minister for Schools, I shall ensure that they receive proper attention. I congratulate her on bringing the matter to a not entirely crowded Chamber, and I note that in her short time in the House as Member for Bristol North West she has made great endeavours to ensure a fairer and better education system for all her constituents.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.