The vagaries of the variables: The moving feast that is the Condition Improvement Fund

By Tim Warneford.

Another frantic week for the circa 4,000 uploaded applications on to the ESFA Portal ended today at 12.00: ‘High Noon’, indeed.

The ESFA are likely to publish the list of successful awards in April/May 2022 and this will mean we can all return to the traditional lead-in period before starting to deliver the projects over the summer and beyond.

Once the bids are safely uploaded and submitted it is always a time for reflection, could we have done any more to improve the chances of an award? Was I correct to sacrifice the email from the manufacturer stating the obsolesce of the key component? Given the parsimony of the file size for the upload, such agonising decisions are all too common.

The number of variables involved in a CIF award are numerous, some objective, others subjective, some quantifiable and others more opaque.

The ESFA provide a ‘hierarchy of need’; projects that pose a risk to life, such as fire safety asbestos, legionella, and safeguarding and these make for very strong contenders. The next level concerns risk to full or partial closure of a school, boilers that service a school from one plant room for example could result in closure due to no heating and or hot water.

The fabric of a building will also attract its fair proportion of funding. A roof with a Woodwool or Stramit deck that has been exposed to prolonged water ingress, poses significant questions of structural integrity and thus link condition with safety. Likewise, those pitched roofs suffering from nail fatigue also pose a risk of falling slates to pupils, staff and the public.

Then we have the trust’s ability and willingness to invest in the submission. With 6 points available for those with the wherewithal to make a 30% contribution and 0 points for those who cannot or will not, this is another vital variable to consider. The school that does not contribute will need to make those lost points up somewhere and that will invariably have to be from the Project Need section given the weightings.

The board that claims it cannot afford to invest should be asking itself, can we afford not to invest. Without that buy-in, the submission will inevitably struggle to meet the threshold for an award.

The DfE do not have the internal resources to mark 4,000 submissions in the normal two-month period. This job is divided among a number of chosen consultants where it is hoped, no conflict of interest exists. They are provided with a scoring criteria and advice as to what to look for in each section and to prepare feedback to justify the scores allotted to each.

The ESFA team do apply quality assurances on the marking patterns of those to whom they subcontract the evaluation role.

However, despite the objectivity provided by the scoring advice, there cannot be any real doubt that subjectivity plays a crucial role in the scores and that sufficient room exists to revisit any borderline bid and a justification, arbitrary or otherwise, to deduct a vital point or two so that the threshold is not met, and no award is made.

Those of us with years of experience can all too readily nominate bids that were not successful, despite being overwhelmingly worthy and other times when we were grateful that less robust bids were funded. There will always be a question over the consistency of marks applied as there are hundreds of different people with different experience and skills in regard to the type of project being evaluated.

The trust has other key roles to play in the quality of the supporting documents that underwrite much of the bid. In an ideal world, schools will have a contemporary (quinquennial) building condition survey, helpfully costed and not be reliant on the Condition Data Collection report.

Further, they will have floor and site plans, services schematics, expenditure logs, invoices, fire risk assessments carried out by a fire officer or consultant, up to date asbestos registers, health and safety audits and other sources from which we can draw.

But just how many have adopted Good Estate Management for Schools (GEMS) best practice? How many have not only collected and collated the above information but used it to produce estate strategies, asset management plans and planned mmaintenance programmes? How many trusts not subject to submitting as part of their annual returns a Streamlined Energy Carbon Report (SECR) will have prepared an environmental strategy? Clearly, next year there will be even greater focus on costed options appraisals for renewable installations and points accrued.

In my experience, those trusts who work collaboratively with their consultant produce a far more robust bid which in turn results in a higher number of successful awards.

Whilst it may not score any additional points, the platform afforded the school to submit an impact statement is, in my opinion, a very good opportunity to provide a voice for the school to express exactly the impact that a cold or wet classroom has on teaching and learning environment and why the award is so important to them.

The consultant’s own model is another big factor. For some it’s about volume, they prize the quantity of bids they submit over the quality of the bids they submit. This can also be attractive to some trusts who also wish to play the numbers game. My model is to work with trusts who are more strategic and who select the projects that do have a genuine chance of being awarded.

The amount of time and effort that goes into a good CIF submission is considerable. From the collection and analysis of existing data to the subsequent surveys, assessments, audits, and reports that are required to make up the Project Need section.

The production of Gantt charts, resource schedules, risk registers and costed options appraisals take no little time, if they are to be bespoke to both the school and the work package and secure a high number of available points from the Project Planning section.

Project Cost requires submitted contractors’ tenders to provide full breakdown of costs and to commit to holding their prices and providing assurances of requisite resources to deliver the projects during the very same limited summer holiday period as hundreds of other clients.

Let’s not forget that the consultant and their supply chain work at risk and are only paid if the bid is successful and it may be over 12 moths before they are in receipt of any payment.

Very few schools are prepared to invest in surveys at risk, even though the data would support the bid. They argue that they cannot afford to do so, rather that they will refund any costs incurred should the bid be awarded.

I would not dream of charging a school for any service and so I must motivate my supply chain to do the same. Ergo, we must convert a high number of our bids to make it all financially viable.

I don’t have the appetite or resources to prepare bids that I don’t believe are of sufficient strength, I leave that to those who do.
I cap the number of annual submissions so that I can deliver the quality that is patently required to achieve a successful outcome.

Good luck to all applicants, given the ESFA’s own estimate, our UK school estate still requires an £11 billion investment and whilst the circa £450 million CIF pot will not make much of a collective impact, those individual schools who are successful with their submission will benefit enormously from safe, dry and warm learning environments.

Contact me if you require more information.

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