Throwing billions at schools

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How do you go about quickly spending $14.7 billion in school infrastructure and yet make sure you invest in the right areas and get value for money?

First up, let us be absolutely clear – it’s a magnificent conundrum. Second, for many schools it will be clear-cut how to spend the money. Many schools have very clear, high-priority needs which can be met by the standard design solutions being offered by departments of education across the country. For these schools, contracts and construction can begin as soon as government departments can manage. Let the stimulus begin.

The problem for State governments lies with schools either (i) needing more time to prioritise their needs or (ii) whose needs aren’t met by the standard design solutions on offer. The problem particularly affects the government schools because, being part of a system, they are caught within the bureaucratic process of that system.

There are easy solutions for these problems. The State departments should not be attempting to shoe-horn schools into accepting infrastructure packages which teachers and parents do not welcome. Where there is disagreement, schools should be encouraged to adopt a masterplan approach for the physical upgrade of their school in line with their school development plan. Ultimately, this means State Ministers taking a deep breath and requesting more time from the Commonwealth to allow these schools to plan and invest their money wisely. A flexible response to reality is generally considered a hallmark of good governance.

The States and the Commonwealth have a further responsibility to ensure the public is getting value for its money. The advantage of the central procurement system applied by the States is that, whilst slower, it is meant to achieve economies of scale and deliver better value for money. There have been worrying reports in the media that in fact the opposite may be occurring. The Australian, in particular, has launched a broad attack on the neo-Keynesian policies of the Commonwealth by focusing on inefficiency in the school investment component of the fiscal stimulus package. All governments will be open to criticism if the procurement process is later shown to be faulty and delivers either poor quality or poor value for money. It would also be a sad blow to Rudd’s new activism of government if it permits ill-advised haste to generate the ‘school waste’ headlines of the future.

The States and the Commonwealth need to be checking now (as contracts are being prepared for schools) that the value of the civil works being proposed fall within acceptable industry price parameters. The States in particular, need to ensure that civil works are accurately and sufficiently detailed for each individual school. The price for these works should then be analysed and deemed acceptable in terms of cost per square metre and pricing for equipment and facilities.

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