LocatEd expands remit to include ‘site optimisation’

A company set up by the government to find and buy sites for the free schools programme will now advise academies on how to “optimise” their sites.

The government is “broadening the remit of LocatED to provide more advice to multi-academy trusts on how to optimise your sites”, according to Lord Agnew, the minister for academies, addressing a union conference.

“Things like that are easier in London, where per-square values are far higher, but don’t think just because you’re not in London these things don’t work. There are some very exciting ideas being pursued at the moment.”

The Department for Education confirmed Agnew’s remarks, made at the ASCL conference for business leaders last Thursday, were correct, but refused to comment any further or explain what LocatEd’s new “remit” is and whether it involves selling or leasing school sites.

It is unacceptable to suggest that hard-pressed schools experiencing the worst financial crisis in decades should be encouraged to sell off or lease parts of their school estate

LocatED referred Schools Week back to the DfE when contacted for comment.

In April, the DfE released guidance entitled ‘Good estate management for schools’ to help schools manage their sites and keep costs down, with advice on minimising energy and water usage, and tips on making the most of property assets.

The report said schools could “identify opportunities” to acquire new premises and sites, dispose of surplus land and buildings, or grant third party use of land and buildings “including for the purposes of generating income”.

It advises schools to contact LocatED “if you have land to dispose of, and have already sought and secured the appropriate consents”.

Schools can seek government permission to sell off surplus land, including disused playing fields, but are usually obliged to use at least some of the proceeds to fund new outdoor education facilities.

In 2014-15, the DfE granted 23 land disposals. However last September Schools Week received updates for 14 of the subsequent projects to create new outdoor facilities. Of these, seven had not yet gone ahead and one had been abandoned altogether, at a cost of hundreds of thousands of pounds.

The GEMS guidance also says the DfE is currently piloting small scale projects in collaboration with LocatED on the efficient use and management of their school estates.

Dr Mary Bousted, the joint general secretary of the National Education Union, warned that “school sites are not commercial assets to be optimised” and criticised the government for turning education into “a commodity”.

“It is unacceptable to suggest that hard-pressed schools experiencing the worst financial crisis in decades should be encouraged to sell off or lease parts of their school estate,” she said. “Parents, heads and teachers will be horrified by this proposal and rightly so.”

Last year, Schools Week revealed that some schools were earning tens of thousands of pounds a year through inventive schemes including renting out wedding spaces, revamping a van to sell burgers and opening shops.

Malcolm Trobe, the deputy general secretary of ASCL, said schools receiving free or cheaper advice on optimising their sites could be a positive thing, but admitted it is “concerning” that the DfE and LocatED are not “being transparent” about the changes.

“We would be very keen to know exactly what the full remit of LocatED is,” he said. “Schools would be very interested in knowing what LocatED is charged with doing now.”

Earlier this month it emerged that LocatED had made an “urgent” plea for new school sites in London. The company is currently seeking 59 new sites across the county, including 24 in London.

Nine of the London schools currently without sites are due to open this September.