Rishi Sunak’s recent announcement of a slowdown on net zero targets may have taken the pressure off some, but for others the clock still ticks. Challenges continue to rise and funding shows no signs of increasing.
Public sector buildings including schools are still expected to decarbonise their estate by 2030. Looking at the biblical weather of the past few months, we can all see how important this is and why reducing emissions needs to be high on every school leader’s agenda.
Meanwhile, the condition of the school estate has hit national headlines. Asbestos is still found in four out of five schools, which only made it harder to identify problems with RAAC. In addition, more severe weather will inevitably mean that we need differently designed and more resilient school buildings. No surprise then that school leaders are increasingly concerned about planning strategically and forecasting their budget spends.
A roadmap to cope with things from leftfield
A key tool for all school and trust leaders is to have a road map for their estate portfolio. This is a strategic plan which maps out current condition of the buildings, identifies key risks and issues, indicates costs of any remedial or replacement works and sets out the priorities over the short, medium and long term. Linked to a capital budget plan over five to ten years, the strategic plan will set out how the priorities will be funded. The majority will be from central government funding, but a roadmap can also highlight where applications for charitable grant or other funding streams could be made, and facilitate this process.
Having a roadmap means that when the unforeseen happens there is a basis for discussions around what elements need to be brought forward, what can be postponed and what can be dropped until funding and capacity are available. It is also critical in providing a strong reminder to retain longer-term priorities in sight when short-term challenges threaten to distract.
Managing school budgets means balancing the rising capital, maintenance and revenue expenditure associated with school buildings with the costs of resourcing and delivering the curriculum, including staff recruitment and retention. Uncertainty around increases to existing funding for school buildings prevails, both for those in receipt of school condition allocation and for those bidding into the condition improvement fund. Managing this uncertainty can be made easier by investing in up-to-date building condition surveys, fire safety surveys and heat decarbonisation plans.
This portfolio of information sharpens focus on where spend may be needed, preventing closures and costly works arising where an earlier, cheaper and less disruptive fix might have been possible. Undertaking these surveys on a regular cycle will keep schools on the front foot for any funding streams which come forward, providing the robust evidence required to support bids, for example for the public sector decarbonisation fund. It will also facilitate medium- to longer-term sustainability goals.
Be agile with space
Asset optimisation – using data from condition surveys, net capacity surveys and other information – is key in setting the strategy for how spaces within schools are used and developed. With school rolls falling across the country in the primary phase but increases in PAN expected in the secondary estate, one way of responding to short-term funding issues is to look at mothballing or repurposing under-used spaces in our schools.
Offering under-utilised spaces to nurseries, wrap-around providers or even healthcare providers can help reduce cost pressures while facilitating a holistic community approach for the delivery of integrated services.
Finally, school leaders should keep an eye on estates revenue expenditure, which can easily spiral. Across the system, there is a mix of centralised and devolved estates revenue budgets. Centrally-procured services confer economies of scale and other benefits. But procuring local contractors also has advantages, including keeping businesses within school communities afloat. Schools and trusts should explore both models to see where cost and operational efficiencies are possible.
By preparing for the unexpected and remaining agile, the sector can go a long way to meeting its 2030 decarbonisation target and help to alleviate at least some of the predictable impacts of climate change.