Post-CIF 2019/20: what schools need to consider for 2020/21 – part three

Now that the dust has settled from the bidding round for Condition Improvement Fund (CIF) monies in the 2019/20 period, it is worth considering what schools should be preparing for their bids for funding in the next round of bids this coming autumn. In the last of a three-part series Alex Manuel, education specialist at Lambert Smith Hampton, focuses on managing the school estate

The ESFA guidance document states, ‘We also expect academies and sixth-form colleges to manage their estate effectively and have published guidance [called Good Estate Management for Schools (GEMS)] on how to make the most of your resources.’ This places an onus on academy trusts – whether a single or multi-academy – to develop a plan for maintaining their estates which uses resources as efficiently as possible. This applies equally to all, but the larger the trust, the more complex the plan will become as it will have to address issues across multiple sites.

The purpose of this is to push trusts into thinking in the long-term and managing their portfolio in a sensible manner to get best use and value out of all aspects; this means having a more commercial mindset when it comes to property management.

The government’s GEMS information sets an expectation on trusts to initiate – if they have not already done so – and develop the following documentation, which will enable trusts to manage their estates effectively:

  • Estate vision – which gives a clearly-defined view of the medium to long-term, aligned to the educational vision of the school/s.
  • Estate strategy – which describes how the estate vision is to be implemented, covering the next three-to-five years.
  • Asset management plan – this sets out how the estate strategy is to be achieved and the actions needed to do this, looking at the short to medium-term and providing greater detail.

GEMS is the first step in the DfE/ESFA intention to emphasise to trusts the expectations they have about how their school estates should be run; it is there to help and guide trusts, assisting them in obtaining the relevant information to enable them to make the best decisions to manage their estates. GEMS sets a minimum for what is expected of academy trusts; it is unlikely that the DfE will provide greater detail. It should be referenced within any CIF bids you make – this is the ‘Where does your project sit within your plan?’ part of the process. It is very much a starting point for trusts, not an encyclopaedia which will give all answers; it is down to the trusts themselves to use this government-provided help and ensure they take the right steps to effectively manage their estates in the future.

Best use of resources
Managing the estate effectively will help to ensure best use of resources and more efficient running of the site, as well as improving the overall condition of the estate over time. It will also contribute to the wider school and provide further benefits – better school buildings, facilities and services will help to improve staff morale, while enhancing the environment and appeal of the school for both existing and prospective students can attract pupils and aid staff retention and recruitment.

Undertaking works in a co-ordinated manner will reduce waste, create opportunities to combine maintenance and construction activities, enable the educational requirements of the estate to be properly accommodated and future needs to be planned for in a logical way – for example, expansion funding, which requires a considerable amount of information in order to prove need. This level of information will enhance a CIF bid as well as providing considerable benefit to a school at both micro and macro levels – not least, when trying to understand and plan finances.

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Putting together an asset management plan – along with developing the estate vision and estate plan as the DfE is pushing trusts to do – requires considerable input from a consultant to provide the necessary property advice and it also needs significant investment from the trust itself and the academies within it.

This is not necessarily a financial investment; it is more a commitment of resources and time – which, obviously, come at a price. People within the trust will need to assume responsibility for certain roles, to ensure everything needed can be carried out, and the trust board will have to ratify the estate vision, strategy and asset management plan. These documents will remain ‘live’ and will require regular review and development to ensure they continue to deliver what the school requires which, in turn, will develop over time and as needs change – reflecting pupil numbers, condition of facilities, curriculum activities and other influencing factors.

Financial savings
Trusts should not be put off by the need for this ongoing work, however; the, relatively modest, investment in developing an estate strategy and management plan will help to save considerable sums over time, paying for itself over and over – not just in terms of the financial savings such a plan can realise in immediate maintenance and repair costs, but also in the uplift in the school environment it can lead to which will improve and enhance the ‘softer’ side of the teaching environment.

None of this should be underestimated, nor its value ignored; this is not just something the DfE is pushing trusts to do for the benefit of a CIF bid; it will have real, tangible benefits – financial and wider – for the trust if embraced, such as:

  • real savings achieved against maintenance and running costs.
  • better value obtained through the co-ordination of activities and planning of projects.
  • the avoidance/reduction of the risk of redundant/superseded work, and associated costs.
  • a way forward is visible to all which can build the school team and improve the working environment, with everyone able to see where and how their needs are going to be accommodated.

Ultimately, a long-term view needs to be adopted by anyone who is responsible for managing a property, whether a single building, or multiple sites. This is the only way to achieve best value. The DfE is encouraging trusts to adopt this philosophy, not just to aid in the transition out of a CIF-type funding stream – which is the current goal of the government – but also to better enable school estates to be managed in such a way that they achieve their full potential – and the school can do so at the same time.

Alex Manuel is an education specialist at Lambert Smith Hampton, a national commercial property consultancy.

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