Getting the best from capital investment in the education sector – lessons from the past

Getting the best from capital investment in the education sector – lessons from the past

The UK Prime Minister today announced a transformative ten-year building programme for schools and colleges around the country.

Over £1 billion will be committed to the first 50 projects, with construction on first sites beginning next September. Schools in the worst condition across England will be targeted, including substantial investment in the North and the Midlands as part of the plan to level up opportunity for all.

Targeting this investment correctly and learning from previous experience of capital expenditure in the education sector will be critical to ensuring good value for money. Frontier has undertaken extensive analysis in this area. We evaluated the £6.8 billion spent by Government on capital expenditure in Further Education in England between 2002-03 and 2010-11 and also the £20 billion spent on capital by the Higher Education sector in England between 2005-06 and 2013-14.

Our work found a range of positive impacts associated with capital expenditure. In colleges, we found evidence of increased participation, employer engagement, improved environmental sustainability and better utilisation of college estate. It also highlights a number of lessons for the sector and for Government. In Higher Education, we found evidence of increased undergraduate and research students as well an increase in income from consultancy and contract research in research-intensive institutions.

Our work captured key lessons drawn by those close to projects that are likely to be relevant for any schools and colleges applying for funding as well as for Government in allocating and measuring its impact.

In general, colleges were proficient at implementing large scale investments and followed effective processes. Most colleges used established construction and design frameworks to recruit contractors for projects and visited 2-3 other colleges to gain insight about best practice and design ideas, before embarking on their respective projects. In hindsight, colleges also noted that three factors were key to successful planning and implementation of capital projects in colleges. 1. Consistent and thorough communication and consultation across staff, learners and other stakeholders, including engagement with the local council, community and other local groups. 2. A strong leadership team either from within the college itself or under a project director appointed by the college and 3. Oversight from a curriculum perspective – either having a curriculum director on the project team, or ensuring close partnership between capital and curriculum teams, to ensure that buildings were truly fit for purpose.

For Government, lessons can also be learnt

  1. Schools and colleges should provide a clear statement of the rationale for their capital project which includes measurable policy goals. These goals should be school or college specific but should demonstrate links with key government policy priorities. In addition to student numbers and performance this could include: local economic impacts, environmental sustainability and improved estate efficiency. It is not necessary that every project has to tick the box for each policy goal, but schools and colleges should make a clear statement at the outset of how they believe the project would impact on policy goals. 
  2. Schools and colleges should also include a set of baseline figures or evidence for each policy goal. Wherever possible these baselines should be site specific. This is extremely important as these baselines will provide the benchmark for judging the project’s success on its completion and afterwards. Statements of this nature accompanied with the relevant baseline policy measures will make evaluating projects significantly easier.
  3. Schools and colleges should consider introducing project specific monitoring to track performance across the range of policy objectives set out in their rationale. This monitoring would need to be continued for some years after the project and could be shared regularly with key funding stakeholders. 
  4. Investment in capital expenditure can stimulate economic regeneration through direct routes (e.g. employing staff) as well as indirect ones (e.g. stimulating investment from other businesses, creating buildings leading to better community engagement or creating facilities that can help to achieve wider goals such as improving health). But to realise these benefits, schools and colleges need to be encouraged to more explicitly recognise and plan for the role that they can play in economic regeneration of areas. Previous projects that were successful in this regard could offer valuable learnings.


Frontier regularly advises clients on how to develop business cases for government funding and ensure projects are well-equipped to offer value for money as well as how to evaluate projects and programmes including those involving capital expenditure.

For further information please contact or call +44 (0) 20 7031 7000.