The government has made £327m funding available for investment into schools to increase choice and diversity of provision. Deputy headteacher Paul Ainsworth studies the guidance and summarises the key opportunities for school leadership teams

In June 2007, SFM described the Targeted Capital Fund (TCF), a budget held by the DCSF to which schools could bid. The fund was initiated to provide sums of money for schools working together to develop joint facilities (buildings and IT) and to enhance collaborative activity, consisting of both hard and soft federations of schools working on a joint project. Other groups that could apply were schools in a joint trust and Fresh Start schools. The bidding procedure was very straightforward and sums of up to half a million pounds were available.

It certainly benefited my school, Belvoir School, and its collaborators in the Vale of Belvoir, Leicestershire, whose bid focused on developing a virtual learning environment (VLE) across a group of nine schools. This involved the establishment of a soft governance federation committee, with delegated powers to oversee the project. The bid was successful and the schools received £500,000 from the TCF to begin building the ‘Vale Virtual School’.

The application procedure for this fund was wound up last year but, fortunately for schools that missed the opportunity, the TCF has been relaunched and updated guidance published. The government has created specific TCFs for:

  • school kitchens: to support LAs in providing kitchens in schools where currently there are none, where there is exceptional need that otherwise would unacceptably impact on other capital priorities (the fund cannot be used to improve existing kitchens or dining areas, and will be applied for by LAs)
  • facilities for 14-19 diplomas and special needs: 76 LAs not currently in the Building Schools for the Future programme will get additional funding to support the provision of facilities for the delivery of 14-19 diplomas and/or to improve facilities for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities. The LAs will be expected to use the funds for a small number of substantial projects
  • basic need safety valve: this will enable LAs to provide additional school places to cope with exceptional growth in pupil numbers, where these cannot be met from other programmes, including the New Pupil Places (Basic Need) programme; the deadline for applications to this fund has already passed
  • 16-19 capital fund: £630m is available to provide capital funding for significant numbers (ie at least 50) of new 16-19 places in schools and colleges; a capital grant will be made to schools or LAs, depending on which body has made the application
  • standards and diversity.

This article focuses on the last of these funds, the one that provides capital to support choice and diversity of provision in order to raise standards. It will examine the aims of the fund, the sums of money available and the guidelines for application. Further information about all of the funds is available from the guidance index on the Teachernet website (see the web address at the end of the article).

School federations and Fresh Start Schools

Many schools already have informal links, and formalising their relationship could allow them to bid for large sums of money to benefit the group. At one end of the federations continuum is a hard governance federation, with a single governing body shared by a group of schools; and at the other end an informal, loose collaboration. In between are soft governance federations and soft federations, which are slightly different entities from each other.

A soft governance federation is where a group of schools set up a committee (known as joint governance or strategic committee) with delegated powers. Soft governance federations are statutory and established using the collaboration regulations made under the Section 26 Education Act 2002. A soft federation committee does not have delegated powers, nor statutory regulations.

A joint governance committee can have budgetary powers delegated to it. Where a project is being financed, the committee could oversee the financial leadership, make prompt budgetary decisions and then report this to each governing body. It is not difficult to move from a loose collaborative committee to a joint governance committee – it simply requires the support of the governing bodies involved.

A ‘Fresh Start’ school is a new school that has been opened in place of a school that was causing concern. Such schools receive a substantial amount of extra revenue and capital funding from the DCSF.

Aims of the fund
The new Standards and Development Fund (SDF) contains £327m in funding for the academic years 2008-11. This source, as with the previous TCF, does not appear to have a restrictive nature, nor does the application procedure seem onerous and – perhaps most promising of all – grants of up to £1.75m are available.

The SDF is an additional source of capital funding to complement the large sums of money already being invested in schools via the increase in devolved capital, the Building Schools for the Future programme and the Primary Capital Programme (PCP). The fund will provide additional support for projects where the BSF or the PCP does not come on-stream in a timely fashion to help raise standards for students. The DCSF is expecting local authorities to provide a strategic leadership role in the process and hence it is expected that application to the SDF will arrive at the DCSF via the local authority and with its support.

Fund priorities
In comparison to the previous TCF, the categories of schools and projects eligible for funding are more detailed.

  • The first are projects that help to raise standards by increasing parental choice and diversity of provisions. This can be by expanding successful and popular maintained schools, supporting new entrants to the maintained sector, Fresh Start schools or federations of schools working together in a common trust (see box).
  • The second type of project is the removal of surplus places.
  • The last type of project is the development of projects in very specific schools such as maintained boarding schools, non-maintained special schools and Music and Dance Scheme schools.

The DCSF has made indicative allocations for each of the project areas listed above. It is no surprise that expanding popular schools and Fresh Start or federations of schools will receive a large proportion of the £327m over the three years – £72m and £86.5m respectively – but what is perhaps most intriguing is that the largest sum, £138.5m, is directed towards supporting new entrants to the state sector.

The bids that will be most favoured are those aimed at developing innovative models that address poor performance, diversity and surplus places: an example could include a federation between a strong school and a weak school. A second area of priority would be increasing the number of places in a good school that is currently oversubscribed.

Application process
There is no bidding round for this fund; instead, applications can be made at any time, with the result of the bids being given on a quarterly basis, which could be as soon as two months from submission date. If a bid is of sufficient calibre but there are insufficient funds at that time, the DCSF will look to support the proposal later in the cycle.

The bid must address a number of key points:

  • Firstly, for those financial managers involved in specialist schools bids: the bid must show in detail how the investment will contribute to raising standards and how the expected improvement would be measured.
  • Secondly, it must be easily identified which category the bid falls into. The financial manager could have a key role here in ensuring that the school makes this clear, as opposed to submitting a more vague, catch-all proposal. The proposal must clearly show why additional funds are needed in addition to those already held by schools and the local authority, and it is here that good relationships will be required between the school and the local authority to make a cogent case. The proposal needs to offer value for money and be in line with the current DCSF proposals for school areas and cost guidelines.
  • The project must be deliverable within the time frame of 2008-11, with details showing how the money is to be spent during each financial year within that.

Specific criteria
The DCSF guidance is particularly detailed, but for the purpose of this article it is most suitable to look at the bidding areas where the most money is allocated (ie expanding the most popular schools, Fresh Start or federations of trust schools, and developing new entrants to the state sector). These are referred to as category (iii) schools in the SDF guidance.

Colleagues who wish to consider looking at improving outcomes in more specialised schools, referred to as category (i) schools in the guidance, or who wish to receive funding to facilitate the removal of excess surplus places – category (ii) schools – should refer to the DCSF link given at the end of this article.

Expansion of popular and successful maintained schools
The current government has consistently said it will allow successful and popular schools to expand. This fund, alongside other monies held by local authorities provides a further opportunity to make this a reality. Schools that are subject to sustained parental demand for places can apply to this fund; however, it is not available to relieve the overcrowding of already popular schools. And schools that are already being funded through the BSF programme or Basic Need to meet the requirements of an increasing local population cannot also apply to this fund. Grammar schools, whether fully or partly selected, are not eligible to apply to the SDF.

The DCSF has determined a typical cost for the expansion of successful schools. If a school is gaining an additional form of entry, the typical cost for expanding faculties in a primary school is £2.1m; and for a secondary school with a sixth form, up to £3.2m. Schools can apply to the SDF for around 50% of these costs. It is expected that the school or local authority will contribute the outstanding 50%; this could be drawn from the authority’s formulaic funding or the school’s devolved capital. Even though the DCSF states that applications should be through the DCSF, it adds that if the LA does not support the expansion, the department will evaluate applications and consider additional sources of funding.

It is important to recognise that there is an additional hurdle, beyond finance, to expanding a popular school. Statutory proposals are also required when a school wishes to increase its capacity by more than 25% or 200 students (whichever is lower) or increase its intake by 27 or more students. Even if a school gains funding from the SDF, the monies will only be released on statutory proposals being approved.

Additional requirements
Naturally, applications should be supported by a certain amount of information. Schools need to provide details of why the school is popular. This should include parent preferences for the most recent admission year, those from the past three years and in-year admissions. In terms of being successful, the school must provide contextual information and the relevant absolute and relative performance data. Detail must also be given on the number of places that will be created. With reference to funding, the application must explain from where the remaining 50% of the money is being allocated, and be able to demonstrate that the LA has exhausted all other alternatives for funding these additional places. There are slightly different regulations for voluntary-aided schools.

The funding must be spent on school buildings; this could be for remodelling existing buildings as well as building new ones, whichever offers the best value for money. However, the money cannot be spent on equipment unless it is at the margins of a large building project where new classrooms require associated fixtures and equipment. Details are not required for the building projects as long as the investment is in line with DCSF guidance on capital funding in school buildings.

New entrants to the maintained sector
This area could encompass independent schools wishing to join the state sector, something that is being considered by some schools in the light of possible changes to charity regulations. The DCSF particularly welcomes applications for new schools promoted by parents where a trust is being formed for the school, those schools based on collaboration across more than one authority to meet parental demands in accordance with a particular ethos, and new joint or multi-faith schools. Further details can be found via the web link at the end of this article.

Fresh Start schools
In poorly performing schools, Fresh Start can be a successful vehicle to raise standards and could be a temporary solution prior to forming an academy or trust. Applications for capital resources can be made to the SDF and the school needs to provide details of performance that necessitates a Fresh Start scenario, the vision for a long-term solution such as an academy or trust, any partnership or collaborative arrangements that will support the new school, and student projection data that shows the project is viable.

Schools working in a single trust, or hard federations of schools
The last category builds upon the previous TCF guidance but initially appears to firm it up by removing the soft-governance federation angle. For those groups of schools that require funding for a certain project, such as a shared virtual learning environment (VLE) or sports facilities, forming a hard federation may be a step too far.

Forming a common trust can be viewed as being seen on the collaborative continuum between soft and hard federation. It is far more formalised than a soft federation but if the trust is established with only a small number of trustees on each governing body, it would be less invasive than a hard federation on each individual school. Interestingly, the guidance does suggest that funding is available for federations having a shared governance committee with delegated powers. This is the normal definition of a soft federation, even though this is not directly stated in the title, so perhaps this is still an avenue that can be explored by groups of schools. In addition, within the application section of the guidance, soft-governance federations are explicitly mentioned.

The maximum funding available to groups of schools in this category is £250,000 for partnerships involving two to five small schools; or up to £500,000 for partnerships involving more schools, or schools with over 500 students. The partnership must provide at least 20% of the total project cost.

It is expected that proposals should encompass the following areas:

  • innovative governance and leadership models which support collaborative working
  • shared service models for small schools and/or those with economies of scales
  • primary-only federations, or trusts that aim to pool resources
  • school working with a shared trust that includes external partners as trust members.

In addition, the guidance suggests that other proposals which contribute to raising standards or particular government initiatives could also receive funding.

Applications should explain how the capital funding will embed collaboration and raise standards (specific measurable outcomes will be needed). Hard federations will need to submit their articles of governance and soft-governance federations will need to submit evidence of meeting minutes. The application must also include how the partnership will achieve economies of scale or support a more joined-up delivery service model. Finally, the partnership needs to provide details of its 20% financial contribution and whether this is on equal divisions or a pro-rata arrangement.

The new SDF has large sums of money available to support capital projects for single schools and groups of schools. While at first sight the criteria appear very prescriptive, on studying the detail there may be opportunities for wider groups of school partnerships to make applications to the fund, which can without doubt play a key role in school improvement.

Further information

Paul Ainsworth is the deputy head at Belvoir High School