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Justifying Costs and Securing Buy-In for Improvements to Your School Estate: Interview with Jo Marchant

Estate maintenance and improvement is an essential part of a school’s responsibilities. A well-maintained school is a safe and welcoming school. Which not only provides a better working environment and educational outcomes for students and staff alike. But also provides a bridge, enabling the school to better work alongside their local community. 

However, despite now living in a post RAAC Crisis world, with senior leaders grappling with stretched budgets and the cost-of-living crisis, funding for estates usually finds itself low on their priority list. Estates Managers often face an uphill battle when making the case justifying spending on the school estate compared to simpler and quicker school improvements. 

Looking ahead to the School Estates Summit we sat down with Jo Marchant, Estates Professional at the Boxing Academy. Drawing upon her over 20 years of estates management experience and 14 years in the education sector to explain how estate managers can secure commitment and buy in from their senior leaders to make the necessary improvements to their school. 

It often feels as though issues with the school estate are quite low down on leaders’ priority list until they become so severe, they are unavoidable.
Obviously, schools and trusts have limited budgets and resources but why do you think that is?

Jo: I think really the answer to that question is that the people in charge of schools are teachers. They have not been trained to run multimillion-pound businesses, which is what most schools have been forced to become these days. Consequently, their focus is on teaching and learning and not on issues such as estate. 

Now I can remember a few years ago when I was delivering sessions on finance on the NPQEL course to some candidates. And they told me that they'd had no experience of having to deal with financial issues, and they were deputy head teachers. So, when finance is considered to be the most important issue after teaching and learning, you can imagine that estates comes after finance, HR and probably IT these days. 

I've got 20 years of experience managing estates and I can appreciate at a glance whether premises issue needs immediate attention or not. You can't expect someone who has never been responsible for estates until they become a head teacher to know what needs to be a priority or not in that function. So the answer in my book is to ensure that senior leaders are upskilled on the importance of estates management, either through their education or leadership qualifications or by ensuring that they respect the advice given to them by their premises staff. 

In your experience what are some of the consequences both in the short and long term that schools and trusts are likely to encounter as a result of kicking the can down the road when it comes to issues with their school estate? 

Jo: Well, here's a classic example of that that I've dealt with. So 10 years ago, a secondary school had a new roof installed on one of its teaching blocks. Now due diligence wasn't carried out on the supplier who installed the roof, so they did so without ensuring that the appropriate warranties were in place afterwards. 

Two years after the roof was installed, it started leaking. The premises manager brought this to the attention of senior leaders, who basically took no notice of the fact that buckets were becoming a regular feature in corridors and classrooms in that block. Then the situation continued to be ignored until March last year, when water literally started pouring through the roof after a particularly wet fortnight. 

Now the school has no option at that point, but to close the teaching block of 10 classrooms and tell 350 students that they can't come to school tomorrow because there's nowhere for them to go. So Long story short, the school had to spend half a million pounds on an emergency replacement of this roof during term time, which is not when you choose to have a major roof replacement done, and they also have to find half a million pounds at short notice. 

So you can kick the can down the road for only so long, but then the cost of addressing these issues multiplies significantly compared to if you'd addressed them in the 1st place and just sorted the maintenance on the roof out. 

So this particular situation again relates to your previous question about senior leaders not understanding the importance of estates management. And I've used that particular issue with replacement roof as a case study in my book the Skilled Premises handbook, and I chose to deliberately include it in the chapter that I wrote specifically for head teachers because I know that they don't get any training in estates, so they will drop not generally realize the long term impact of issues such as the leaking roof. 

The school estate is a complex beast and has many different aspects. When estate leaders make their case for funding improvements, which of these aspects should they prioritise? 

Jo: Well, there are three things that you need a building to be if it's going to be conducive to teaching and learning. Number one, it must be safe. 

Schools have structural issues such as RAAC where ceilings could collapse at any time without warning. Those are not safe and it’s the same for schools that have got exposed asbestos.  

Number two, it must be dry. Leaking roofs as I mentioned in my previous example will eventually become collapsing roofs if the leaks aren’t addressed in a timely manner.  

Also consider this scenario. Water leaks through a ceiling, into a corridor that has got vinyl flooring. A member of staff walks along that corridor and they don't notice that there's water on the floor because they're not generally looking down at floor, so they slip on that particular piece of vinyl flooring and end up landing awkwardly. They then injure their knee, and the end result is that that person has to have an operation to replace their kneecap, which was so badly damaged as a result of slipping on the wet floor. That's an example that happened in real life, that is the impact of not addressing your water leaks. 

And then of course, thirdly you need your buildings to be warm. The secondary school I went to was in a Victorian building. In the winter, all the classrooms were freezing and I constantly wore a scarf and sometimes gloves, so I can tell you from personal experience that it's actually very  difficult to concentrate on what you're being taught when all you can think about is how cold you are. 

With schools and trusts stretched incredibly thin how can estate managers effectively communicate to their senior leadership team the importance of increased prioritisation of the School Estate? 

Jo: So I've been a qualified health and safety officer for the last 18 years and when I'm delivering training on fire safety to school staff, I always show them the video of the Bradford City football stadium fire, where a spark that started in the stands became a blazing inferno in 4 minutes. 56 people died in that fire and 265 were injured. Once you've seen that video, you will never again believe that you have got a lot of time to evacuate a building when the fire alarm goes off, you'll appreciate that you've only got 2 to 3 minutes if there really was a fire. 

Similarly, in my view, all estate managers need to do to effectively communicate to senior leaders the importance of increased prioritisation of the school estate is to show them the panorama program on Britain's crumbling schools. That will make them appreciate the impact on children’s learning of a school building that’s no longer fit for purpose. I was really moved by the six year old who was wearing gloves in his freezing classroom and saying that it was difficult to write with a pen with a pencil, with gloves on. 

I was in a freezing classroom 40 years ago. 

Has nothing changed? 

So we’ve mentioned RAAC a little bit already, an estates issue which reached national news status. Do you think the RAAC crisis will make senior leadership more aware of the state of their estate? 

Jo: Well, I found it saddening that it took the pandemic for school stakeholders to appreciate just how invaluable business managers are to the running of the school, and the RAAC crisis has basically done the same for estates and grounds staff. I mean, why does it take a crisis before these crucial school functions are taken seriously? 

So RAAC has brought school buildings to the top of every school's agenda this year, and we have been so fortunate that no one has been injured or worse because of the RAAC crisis. I mean, I can remember when the first case of RAAC was identified, it was in 2018 and it stuck in my mind because it was in a school in Gravesend in Kent, which is about 15 miles from where I live and in an area that I know well. When I heard that a school ceiling had collapsed, I literally checked that it wasn't April fools day because I just couldn't believe that such a thing could happen to a concrete building. 

That was nearly six years ago. School stakeholders need to be using their voice to lobby the government to make more funding available for school premises, maintenance and rebuilding. 

When news of the RAAC crisis broke, it made estates issues something everyone was aware of. When estates managers push to get funding for estates improvement, are there any allies within the school or trust that you would recommend they get on their side? 

Jo: My simple answer to that is evidence. All schools need to know the state of their estate. The only way to get this information is to employ professional building consultants to carry out a building condition survey, which will look at the building fabric along with the mechanical and electrical assets. Once you've received your building condition survey, it will contain a prioritized list of repairs that are required, and it's crucial that urgent repairs are funded and carried out. Consequently, estate managers need to ensure that senior leaders understand the importance of having a building condition survey, and then they need to be able to articulate the impact of carrying out or not carrying out the works listed. 

So just to take a particular example, a small Infant School that I previously had been responsible for had a car park that had no lighting and was basically sinking into the mud because the grounds work hadn't been done properly. So in the in the winter, the staff didn't want to park there because it was muddy and they couldn't see their cars. So the staff all decided they were going to park out on the road. The school was located on a private road, so it wasn’t very long and didn’t have much parking anyway. 

Picture this scenario, so at one point there is a fire that's at the back of the field of this particular  School. The fire engine rocks up and wants to be able to get access through the car park onto the field to deal with the fire, but can't get into the car park because staff are parked in front of the car park gates because no ones using the car park.  

Now thankfully the firemen were able to move the cars out of the way and avoid disaster but you still need to look at the underlying causes. Why aren’t the staff using the car park? One, Because the car park hasn't got a steady foundation to park on, and two, because for them it's dark for five months of the year. So you need to think to yourself that could have caused a major health and safety issue if that turned into a major fire instead of a minor one and so you need to be able to articulate the impact of not having a proper car park. 

So you are Estates Professional at The Boxing Academy which is an alternative provision setting. Do you believe that estates managers in alternative provision have any additional challenges they need to overcome to secure buy in for estates improvement? 

Jo: I’m not sure that they do actually. In fact, I think with regards to alternative provision it’s how you use the building which the main difference from other school settings. It’s understanding the usage of the building and what that means for it’s layout. 

So I'm currently involved in discussions about having a new build for the Boxing Academy, which is really exciting and we spent a lot of time with the architects getting them to come to school to see how we use the school, so they can see what the layout needs to be. If you're fortunate enough to be getting a new build, there's a lot of information that you would want to share with your architects about how you actually use the building. 

So one of the things that I think you probably do need for an alternative provision is additional security. Now I need to make this clear, This isn't to keep the students in, this is to keep other students out who may have a bit of an issue with some of the students who are going to your particular alternative provision. So it is about having a good perimeter security, good perimeter fencing and CCTV in order to make sure that your students, when they're on site are safe and that you're staff are safe as well. There's this misnomer about alternative provision that everybody's under lock and key, that is absolutely not the case. Students can leave at any time, but it's just about us making sure that they're safe when they're in the building. 

Speaking of different strategies and challenges do the strategies for obtaining buy in change depending on if the projects is repairing a pre-existing part of the school or new investments? 

Jo: Yes, I think it does, and again, it all comes down to evidence of impact. I'm going to use a particular scenario which isn't very pleasant. 

If you've got drainage pumps on your school site, then you must have a maintenance agreement for them. The impact of not having your pumps regularly maintained could be that you end up with sewage all over your car park and the toilets in school backing up with sewage. Now it doesn't take much imagination to picture that, and that's the scenario that nobody wants to be in charge of, believe me, I’ve been in charge of it. No senior leader is going to say no to the cost of the maintenance agreement if they’ve got that image in their mind.  

I think for senior leaders you know they will want to see improvements to their school estate that have a tangible impact on teaching and learning, and I totally get that. If you’re a secondary school you would of course love to have your science labs refurbished. But what is the point of spending a lot of money on your science lab refurbishments if you've got a heating system that doesn't work properly? 

Finally, what are some ‘quick wins’ you can go after to get your senior leadership to see the importance of investment in the school estate? 

Jo: I'm not sure that there are any quick wins necessarily, but I'm going to use the Ofsted maxim “show me, don't tell me.” 

There have been many times that I've sat in my office having a discussion with my Estates manager about a particular issue. I sometimes fail to appreciate the urgency with which they're advocating for a certain building issue to be addressed, and in these cases I end up saying, “OK, show me.” So we’ll got for a walk to that part of the building, I see the issue for myself and then I understand the urgency 

To give you an example of this, a lot of modern school buildings are now being built with a lot of glass and fire exit escape doors that go to the outside are very heavy glass doors these days , and one of the things that isn't appreciated is sometimes the hinges just aren't up to the job. So I can remember my estates manager coming into me at school where I was working and saying one of the fire escape doors in the classroom has just come off its hinges and was half hanging off. I heard him and was like “I hope you’re joking”. He Wasn’t. We went and had a look and if that had fallen on a child or even an adult they would not be here it’s that serious. 

So sometimes you've just got to go and see the issue for yourself. I think it's about choosing a time that you can do what you might call a learning walk with your senior leaders to go around the estate, and just point out salient issues while you’re on that learning walk and telling them what the impacts of not dealing with the issue would be. 

Obviously, the example I used was an emergency issue, but there will be lots of other issues that are not necessarily emergencies but are important to be addressed. So go on a learning walk with your senior leaders and point these things out to them.  

Jo will have a key presence at the
School Estates Summit, co-located with the SAASHOW London on May 1st at London Excel. She will be chairing the opening panel ‘ Who?, What?, Where?, When? and Why? : Competency in Estate Management’   in the Estates and Sustainability Theatre as well as the Estates Showcase: ‘We’re All in The Same School Shaped Boat - Learning From Each Other’s Expertise to Enhance Your School Estate’  later in the day.  

So, if you’d like to hear more from Jo and our other incredible speakers make sure you secure your place for free now!   

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