Nikola Idle, Director of Consultancy at Shared Agenda, reflects on the issues schools and academies are facing every day due to their aging estates.
Last month saw the publication of the National Audit Office (NAO) report into the condition of school buildings. Whilst the primary focus of the report was whether value for money was being achieved from the Department for Education’s (DfE) spending in this area, it also brought to light many of the issues schools and academies are facing on a daily basis regarding their estate.
The headline figures in the report made for alarming, though sadly not surprising, reading.
- 700,000 pupils are currently being educated in buildings that either the DfE or the organisation who operates the school believes require major rebuilding or refurbishment
- 38% of school buildings (that’s around 24,000) are believed to be past their estimated design life
The responsibility for maintaining school buildings resides with the individual responsible body, be that a Local Authority or Academy Trust, however as the statutory body for the school system the DfE is ultimately responsible for ensuring best value for any capital investment.
To help achieve this aim, the department has a clearly articulated principle to rebuild the schools in the worst condition, whilst providing funding to responsible bodies to maintain and improve the rest.
The NAO found however that the current levels of investment are below what is required, according to the DfE’s own estimate of the scale of the problem, and this is contributing to the continued overall deterioration of the school estate.
Schools, as with many public sector bodies, are having to manage their budgets whilst navigating the multi-faceted challenges associated with high energy costs, inflation and cost of living impact, as well as, in some instances, a falling birth rate leading to lower numbers on roll.
The impact of these challenges is likely to lead to less money being allocated to estate spend, with only urgent or statutory issues being addressed, when there are competing priorities such as adequate staffing and resources.
The NAO picked up several key themes for improvements, recommending that the DfE consider the balance between maintenance and rebuilding spend, develop a plan to address the critical risk of Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (RAAC), make better use of condition data to drive decision making, ensuring funding is aligned with need, and assess the threshold at which responsible bodies receive capital directly for maintenance and repair.
These changes may or may not be implemented, and those that are will take time to have a direct impact, so what can be done in the mean-time, to avoid the estate continuing to deteriorate faster than it can be maintained or replaced?
There is, of course, no quick fix, or one size fits all answer. However, there are a series of practical steps accountable bodies can take to assist with their estate management responsibilities.
Build up a good baseline understanding of the estate
- Do you have an up-to-date condition survey of your buildings, have they been assessed for risk of RAAC, are you sighted on compliance with all statutory responsibilities?
Have a long-term vision and strategy
- What do you want from your estate in the future, how can it support delivery of your curriculum model?
- How will you address the DfE’s requirements around net zero carbon and sustainability?
Quantify your investment requirements
- Create a plan for the works that are required to address any areas of non-compliance or areas of concern – are there scope/cost and timescale implications?
- Once the works required are understood and quantified, what are your short, medium and long term priorities and how does this align with available spend?
Identify additional funding sources
- If the works required fall outside available funding, what alternative programmes or grants are available to bid into?
Nikola Idle, Director of Consultancy, Shared Agenda
Shared Agenda are a specialist estates consultancy for the education and health sectors. For over a decade our expert consultants have been providing whole life advice and solutions for education estates, focused around capacity, condition and suitability.
They can support with all aspects of good estate management, including strategic planning and capacity assessments, development and funding advice, project and programme management and operational estate advice.
If you need help around school facilities, we can help with:
- Pupil place planning and forecasting
- Capacity assessments
- Strategic estate planning
- RAAC reviews and recovery planning
- Capital pipelines and scheme prioritisation
- Feasibility studies
- Capital funding bids and applications
- Project management
Get in touch if you think we can help you.