Primary and senior school buildings: a practical audit

Municipalities and school boards are responsible for some 10,000 primary and secondary school buildings. The challenges they face, such as the sharp fall in pupil numbers and the arrival of needs-based education, are making high demands on them. But the system contains no incentives for them to work together efficiently for the long term. These findings are presented in our report, Primary and Secondary School Buildings: a practical audit.

Conclusions

We drew the following conclusions from our audit. Municipalities and school boards are together responsible for nearly 10,000 school buildings in the Netherlands. More than 2.5 million primary and secondary school pupils receive lessons in them. Municipalities and school boards spent about €2.6 billion on school buildings in 2013. In practice, the school buildings are just as varied as the education itself. There are differences in the age and the functional and technical quality of the buildings and in the financial resources spent on them. There are also differences in the way municipalities and school boards work together to keep the buildings in a reasonable state, as required by law. With a view to the future, the two parties are facing a substantial challenge.

Recommendations

On the basis of our conclusions, we made the following recommendations.

  • We recommend that the State Secretary for Education, Culture and Science (OCW) clearly formulate central government’s ambitions for school buildings and lay them down as statutory requirements. We also recommend that the State Secretary for OCW consider the impact of the statutory requirements on the model regulation concluded with the Association of Netherlands Municipalities (VNG) and discuss the consequences with it.
  • We repeat the recommendation we made in our earlier audit, Are Dutch primary schools capable of offering ‘needs-based education?’ (2013a), that the State Secretary evaluate the structural funding of primary education (including the teaching material and personnel components), as promised on the introduction of the lump sum funding system. School boards pay for their building costs from the grant awarded to them to maintain their teaching materials, although they are free to decide how much of the lump sum they spend on ‘teaching materials’ and how much on ‘personnel’. The lack of funding for teaching materials that we reported upon in 2013 is a matter of concern, also in the light of the challenges facing school boards.

Official response

Response of the State Secretary for OCW, the Consultative Committees for Primary and Secondary Education and the VNG

The State Secretary wrote that he was not in favour of statutory rules on what was ‘good’ because they would undermine the school boards and municipalities’ sense of responsibility. The parties concerned noted that they were holding talks on potential improvements to the current allocation of tasks. The State Secretary also referred to these responsibilities.

Court of Audit’s afterword

The State Secretary for OCW will not translate his ambitions for school buildings into legislation because that would be an imposition on school boards and municipalities. We would note that the ambitions he has made known to the parties concerned create expectations among the pupils and their parents, teachers and school managers. They expect the ambitions to describe the State Secretary’s policy and the policy to be put into practice. It now appears that the State Secretary wants to challenge the local parties to deliver good results but he is not addressing the concerns of the building users. This is confusing and, in our opinion, can lead to disappointment if the local parties cannot or will not deliver the State Secretary’s ambitions.

We will follow with interest the agenda that the Consultative Committee for Primary Education and the VNG are working on to resolve the problems surrounding school buildings. We note that the State Secretary will formulate further proposals with these parties and the Consultative Committee for Secondary Education by the end of 2016 at the latest. We wonder whether the proposals will include a management role for the State Secretary himself or his ministry if the local parties cannot resolve the problems. Given the fact that public funds are collected and allocated by central government and in the light of the transitional challenges facing school buildings, the State Secretary should certainly consider playing an active and activating role.

See also