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Ensuring that small remains beautiful in academy world

AHR Building Consultancy's Allan Hunt outlines the role of building consultancy in maximising chances of securing CIF funding

Posted by Julian Owen | January 23, 2019 | Law, finance, HR

Today’s financial climate continues to be an enormous concern for academies. Bucking the trend for more and more integration into ever-larger multi-academy trusts (MATs), small chains and lone academies may have the advantage of being nimbler when it comes to navigating challenges. Nonetheless, there are downsides to being a smaller MAT, or an individual academy, not least the lack - in most cases - of a dedicated estates manager or specialist expertise about capital works.

It can also be harder to create savings, with less ability to bulk works across multiple sites to achieve discounts. And when an urgent issue arises, Condition Improvement Funds (CIF) remain highly competitive, with only the most robust bids making the grade. There are, however, ways to ensure the benefits of smallness outweigh the negatives, and this, to a large extent, comes down to long-term planning.

For urgent works, maximising your chances of a winning CIF bid is about drilling down to the nitty-gritty as soon as possible. When time is tight, it is critical to get straight on with contacting consultants for accurate detail of the work required and real-world (not under-estimated or guesstimated) costs. Bids that win tend to be those with the most comprehensive, realistic information and a close focus on the problem at hand, not padding about the history of the school.

BIM models are invaluable in getting various stakeholders on board with projects, since it becomes very easy to understand proposals and enables a more collaborative design process

When time is slightly less pressing, however, the most important things an academy can do to stay on top of problems are to have, at their fingertips, a clear overview of all their buildings and to think long-term. Staying ahead requires a good quality, detailed condition survey; tackling issues on the hoof can lead to inefficient solutions. For example, if you make urgent repairs to electrical wiring one year, then later discover that the wall itself has become unfit for purpose, you have wasted both money and effort.

There is also the benefit of reducing disruption, which is critical when pupils’ learning is involved. This level of knowledge about your campus also stands you in good stead if disaster does strike; for example, if an urgent issue suddenly arises where CIF may be the solution. The better you understand your buildings, the faster you can put together an effective bid.

Considering the way that buildings interrelate, and looking to the future, also leads to longer-lasting solutions. You may plan an expansion project on one particular school block (if your institution is rated ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted, you can apply to CIF for funding) only to find down the line that your teaching needs change, reducing the capacity required in another block nearby.

For urgent works, maximising your chances of a winning CIF bid is about drilling down to the nitty-gritty as soon as possible

You couldn’t be expected to know this in advance but, if anything has become clear for schools, it is that change is inevitable. Perhaps a link could instead have been created between the two blocks, creating a flexible space that could accommodate both growth and curricular changes. Nurturing long-term relationships with consultants can also help, since using several different teams can produce disconnected decision-making.

The use of Building Information Modelling (BIM) can also be a great help when undertaking repair or refurbishment projects. BIM has become far more accessible to smaller public sector bodies - costs have reduced, and awareness has grown of its suitability for small-scale existing buildings, as scan-to-BIM captures every last detail. BIM models are invaluable in getting various stakeholders on board with projects, since it becomes very easy to understand proposals and enables a more collaborative design process.

A narrow focus is critical where deadlines are tight. But, if time allows, forward planning and an appreciation of the bigger picture are the keys to ensuring that small remains beautiful.

Allan Hunt is director of education at AHR Building Consultancy

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