Leaders will be issued with guidance on selling-off surplus school land in a bid to “unlock potential in the education estate” and fund vital rebuilds.
LocatED, the Department for Education’s property company, is set to publish the advice in the coming weeks, as Schools Week analysis shows land disposals have fallen to a four-year low.
The government-backed firm also hopes to roll-out building projects that will see rundown inner-city schools operate within newly constructed blocks of flats.
But Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “We’ve surely reached the bottom of the funding barrel when schools are being advised to sell off land in order to pay for capital projects.”
A Freedom of Information response last month showed the firm has been commissioned to undertake analysis of 132 more plots. Of these, five were considered worthy of further consideration.
Efforts to sell-off surplus school land for housing were ramped up in 2019 and the instruction to review hundreds of sites represented a big escalation.
Just 8 land disposals signed off this year
Despite this, government figures show only eight disposals of school land had been given the government greenlight between January and August 2023.
When extrapolated across the whole year, the number stands at 12. The figure is a drop-off from last year’s 20 and is the lowest since 2019 (11).
The LocatED spokesperson said they work with the Department for Education to identify “where the team is able to work with school landowners to unlock potential in the education estate”.
“With this in mind, LocatED has produced a document that will help school landowners navigate the process of developing school land in order to release capital for reinvestment in the school estate. This is due for publication in the next few weeks.”
Officials recently completed feasibility studies on bankrolling the redevelopment of St James Hatcham Primary in south London through the creation of 100 homes.
Speaking at last month’s Schools and Academies Show, LocatED associate director Will Attlee explained the current site has “£1 million of condition need and not much chance of getting the money” otherwise.
“It’s in that classic band where it’s pretty bad, but not so bad it’s falling down and that it will qualify for DfE funding,” he said.
Housing provides funding for rebuild
“What we’ve done is put together a scheme that will rebuild that school on the existing site … [and is] fully funded by the development of around 100 new homes. This is clearly something that works in city centres, but not everywhere.”
St James Hatcham’s sports hall is earmarked for space across the block’s ground floor, while classrooms will be located on the level above. Affordable housing will be spread across the building’s upper floors.
Attlee noted the building’s footprint “will be reduced, even though the actual floor area is maintained”. This is expected to leave “additional outdoor area for the pupils to use”.
A LocatED spokesperson confirmed its teams are “assessing next steps in light of current market conditions”. However, the firm believes “there is potential for this type of development across other sites in city centre locations”.
“There are a lot of one-form-entry schools that are on one- to two-acre sites,” Attlee argued. “They’re a class of 1960s post-war buildings [and] they’ve probably got significant condition need.”
LocateED also oversaw the sale of one of St John Fisher Catholic Comprehensive’s two former sites in Chatham, Kent, for £3.85 million.
The school, which operated across two buildings in separate locations, moved to a new base in the spring, after being selected for redevelopment through the government’s priority school building programme in 2014.
Schools ‘among top 10 landowners’
Funds raised through the deal – which completed earlier this year – were handed back to DfE “as a contribution towards the cost of delivering the new” facility.
“This has delivered 100 new homes and brought [in] £4 million,” Attlee said, adding that schools are responsible for 125,000 acres, which “puts us in the top 10 landowners in the country”.
Despite this, the wider “property world …[doesn’t] think of education as something they need to think about seriously” and there remains “a lot of inefficient use” of the estate.
But Barton said the scheme “feels like a tacit admission” that current capital funding is “totally inadequate and that schools and colleges are going to have rely on the random chance that they may have some land that it might be possible to sell”.
The government estimates its backlog of school repairs totals £11.4 billion.
James Bowen, assistant general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, added “very few” schools have surplus land, and that parents “will be pretty unimpressed to discover that schools are being encouraged to consider this”.
‘Masterplan’ for 350 new homes
But Attlee pointed to a new project LocatED is working on with Oasis Community Learning, one of the largest academy trusts in England, and Bristol City Council.
“You have one fairly new school built in 2012 [Oasis Academy John Williams] and a typical 1960s primary school that has significant condition need [Oasis Academy New Oak].
“We’re working with the trust to deliver a new masterplan with 350 new homes – [of which] 30 per cent are affordable – a new children’s centre and a new primary school. And that’s all going to be fully funded through money raised from the residential [plan].”
Oasis founder Steve Chalke said the scheme would give him the opportunity to secure a larger primary school equipped with special educational needs provision. The current site “leaks heat, is tired [and] past its sell-by date” and Bristol also has a “housing crisis”, he added.
The development is earmarked for more than 20 acres of fields, deemed “surplus to requirements” by the DfE, that pupils do not use and “half of which is muddy”. But “nothing has been decided yet”.