The shift away from local authority control of education brings its own challenges, but it also gives developers the chance to work with academies and free schools to meet community needs

Richard McCarthy

Transformation in the education sector continues unabated. The dramatic expansion of the academy programme - from 203 schools in May 2010 to over 4,600 schools today - has been a fundamental change in itself and it is already clear that the next five years will bring further change.

Unfettered by the need to work in a coalition, David Cameron has already made it clear that he expects to see a significant expansion of the free school programme by 2020. In addition he has indicated that he would like to see all other schools eventually convert to academy status. Moves to encourage schools of all levels of achievement to convert are already under way.

These changes need to be better understood by the property industry and we need to consider how best to support schools, local authorities and policy makers in the future.

At the heart of these changes has been the shift of responsibility for the day-to-day operation of schools away from local authorities. This has seen a loss of the specialist estate management and development expertise and skills that were previously provided by the local authority. The private sector has always been a key element of new and improved schools provision, but these changes mean that there is an opportunity for us to play a more significant role in both the planning and delivery process. Working across the whole range of schools development, improvement, consolidation and integration activities, we need to be seen as strategic advisers and partners as well as construction specialists.

At the same time the commissioning process is now different - more agile, less regulated - and continues to change, with the shift to a larger number and wider range of customers, including some big academy chains. This creates new opportunities for smaller businesses to enter the sector and provide services to academies and schools, although they need to be prepared for the stringent regulation and tough project management requirements when working on new and improved schools provision.

This market shift also represents a challenge for larger firms. We need to adapt to the nature,needs and expectation of our new clients – this means new services, both on their own and within a complete “end to end” service, increased flexibility and value for money, as well as greater innovation and certainty of delivery. Multidisciplinary firms such as Capita with a track record in the sector are already adapting, but there is more to do.

The move away from local authority control has also changed the day-to-day requirements of running a school. All sorts of relatively small activities - such as general estates management work - are now run entirely by individual schools or multi academy trusts, rather than being managed centrally. This presents its own challenges, particularly in remote areas where there may be limited specialist expertise, and the need to continuously adapt to a changing client base.

Close partnership working will help to assuage concerns in the civil service that the Department for Education is now the ‘back stop’ for any estate issues in academies and free schools, from leaking roofs to failing boilers

Partnership working with academy chains is a new and emerging opportunity, particularly where we can offer tailored end-to-end services that ensure resources are managed effectively with maximum impact and value for money across the entire supply chain and estate needs. Close partnership working will also help to assuage the emerging concerns in the civil service that the Department for Education is now the “back stop” for any estate issues in academies and free schools, from leaking roofs to failing boilers. The challenge is to provide sufficient assurance that these issues can be dealt with cost effectively without involving central government.

Other partnership opportunities include working with small multi-academy trusts (MATs) on supporting their need for investment funding, such as with the Education Funding Agency (EFA). Increased competition among academies and small MATs applying for Condition Improvement Funding, can prove to be a significant resource drain for developing successful applications. One option we’re exploring is helping support small MATs to develop strategic development plans, enabling them to have a phased approach to investment across their schools, then working with the EFA to agree an approach that provides the estates funding to deliver the trust’s needs.

The shift away from local authority schools planning and provision is creating opportunities for developers to work more easily with academy trusts and free schools to deliver a new school, in some cases in lieu of Section 106 contributions. For many developers, this is hugely appealing, particularly those working on large-scale projects, such as the free school being provided by Berkeley Homes as part of its development on the former Kent & Sussex Hospital site in Tunbridge Wells. It gives them the freedom to directly address the pressing needs of the local community, although without expert support and assistance it can lead to significant challenges during the planning process.

The successful delivery of new schools has always meant working to tighter time constraints and stringent standards. However, we need to demonstrate our skills in undertaking these partnership opportunities, and working across competing sectors and stakeholder interests. We can do it, but must never take it for granted or allow ourselves to appear complacent.

And we need to be more active in working with our partners and clients to free up more land for schools development and in developing business cases to secure the necessary funding, such as through S106 agreements. We must remove wasted expenditure on temporary schools provision (I bet we all have memories of temporary classrooms) and secure the schools that our children deserve.

Richard McCarthy is executive director for central government at Capita