Allan Hunt is director of education at AHR Building Consultancy, and an expert on the Condition Improvement Funding (CIF) bidding process. Here, he advises on making a successful bid…
MATs, both large and small, are acutely aware of the pressing issue of school condition and the shortage of funds to deal with this. For lone Academies and smaller MATs, CIF funding remains fiercely competitive, so that for anything other than the most urgent work (and even then) it is hardly a guaranteed solution. As for larger MATs, formula funding can seem like a drop in the ocean. Yet a new pot of money is unlikely to appear on the horizon – so how to make less go further?
It may sound self-evident but the single most important thing that an Academy or small chain can do for the future of their school buildings – and to achieve efficiency savings – is to ensure a full knowledge of all their current condition, and likely deterioration over the near future. This is best achieved through a good-quality, thorough condition survey and development plan, which form far and away the most effective basis for strategic long-term planning. After all, you cannot make coherent plans by working with patchy information, and for smaller MATs and single Academies, who are unlikely to have a dedicated Estates Manager, this can be even more important.
This is not just good practice for the sake of it – although this is certainly the approach recommended by Government in this year’s guidance document Good Estate Management for Schools. The benefits of long-term planning are manifold. For one, not considering the whole picture can create duplication. As a hypothetical example, imagine, say, refurbishing the interior of a school block one year, only to find shortly afterwards that the roof begins to leak, destroying the entire scheme. You have wasted both money and effort. Repeated interventions, necessitated by tackling problems as they come up rather than planning in advance, is not only disruptive of school life but cost inefficient, since bulking like works together can garner savings from contractors. Detailed knowledge of the condition of your campus also stands you in good stead if disaster does strike, since waiting for urgent issues to arise creates added pressure. For example while CIF exists for critical problems (and by and large the more urgent the problem the more likely a bid is going to succeed), a bid put together too hastily can nonetheless scupper your chances. So whilst unexpected issues can arise, the more you know about the condition of your buildings, the better prepared you will be to take appropriate action.
Failing to plan, or to consider the bigger picture of how buildings interrelate, has longer-term consequences too. While change appears to be a constant in education, and it is difficult to anticipate shifting future needs, there are ways to head off problems. Isolated thinking creates isolated solutions, so you might, for example, set out to undertake a basic refurbishment of one school block (possibly with CIF funding for critical aspects) only to realise a few years later that curricular changes or new teaching methods make a wholesale rethink necessary. Instead, the expectation of change could have been ‘built-in’ at the same time by designing flexibly, to create a space that can be used in many different ways. Nurturing long-term relationships with consultants, rather than repeatedly drafting in new teams, can also help prevent disconnected decision-making.
When under financial pressure (not to mention the time pressures so prevalent in school life), it is tempting to tackle problems as they arise, and forward-planning can feel like yet another burden. Yet this is almost inevitably a false economy. Not only is it the recommended approach, taking a step back and investing in proper planning will ultimately make life easier – and funds go further.