Thinking outside the box

5 May 2011 Better estate management fits with the free schools plans, says Tim Byles, chief executive, Partnerships for Schools
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At a recent event, education journalists were asked: “What issue is of most interest to you at the moment?” The answer was resounding across the board: “Free schools, free schools and free schools.”

The new initiative on the block is certainly claiming its share of the headlines, and quite rightly as it is a dynamic and fastmoving area – and one which Partnerships for Schools (PfS) is working closely with the Department for Education and the New Schools Network to deliver.

This new policy agenda is requiring a fresh and creative approach to capital. The concept of individuals setting up a school locally to create additional capacity, and thereby through competitive forces driving up standards, sits at the very heart of the coalition government’s education programme. The range of specialist skills and expertise among PfS staff is facilitating the delivery of free schools in a number of ways – from helping develop the new process for free school admissions announced recently, through to acquiring suitable sites for these schools across the country.

Despite the media focus on a handful of high-profile schemes in the capital, this is very much a nationwide endeavour, which makes good use of the regional knowledge built up by PfS through management of schemes such as the Academies programme. At the time of going to print, PfS is working with 40 active free school schemes across England, from Bradford in the north to Slough in the south. A number of these projects are due to open this September.

One of the most important aspects of our role is ensuring these groups are able to acquire properties that can then be converted into schools. In some cases, the property will already be a school, but in others it requires quite a new mindset altogether and the ability to think outside the box.

I have talked for a number of years about the volume of publicly owned property that is currently vacant. These properties – be they council, NHS or central government owned – are now ripe to house new free schools.

The report from the Westminster Sustainable Business Forum in February, ‘Leaner and Greener: Delivering Effective Estate Management’, started to look at this very question of how to manage the public sector estate more effectively to improve economic efficiency, while at the same time maintaining and improving service delivery.

The findings suggest that local government can save money and improve services by managing their assets efficiently, sustainably and in partnership with other public and voluntary sector organisations. Quite specifically, the report concludes that local government should reduce the space it currently occupies by 20-30%, with potential savings in running costs of up to £7bn a year.

In an education context, this ‘surplus’ could be put to excellent use for new free schools. But commercially owned properties also have a role to play too.

To support this work, we have developed a new online tool that will help groups wishing to set up a new school. It provides them with a range of data that will help them in making their case for a new school – both in terms of  demonstrating that demand exists but also pointing them towards potential properties that might prove suitable to house their school.

The Free School Kit is an online map browser that allows users to choose the best place for their new free school by illustrating other local education provisions in the area. It draws together for the first time publicly available data and presents it in an easily accessible way.

It was developed entirely in-house at PfS, which means that there was no additional cost to the taxpayer. It goes with the grain of greater transparency of public data and over time we plan to develop it further to include all vacant publicly owned property so that the site selection process for a free school can be fast-tracked.

Since its launch at the Building Schools Exhibition and Conference at the end of February, the Free School Kit website has been viewed almost 9,000 times. As we had always hoped and expected, this shows that there is demand for this kind of tool beyond the free schools’ community. Demand is from parents who want a one-stop shop to find out about pupil attainment, the percentage of pupils eligible for free school meals, Ofsted ratings, and information about surplus places for every school in England.

Feedback about the website has been positive, with users praising it as an innovative way of using the data currently available. In particular, one London-based free school proposer said it felt like a bespoke tool designed to help his group. He added: “I feel that what we are doing is quite new and unusual, [and] considering this it’s fantastic to have a tool which meets our needs so specifically. It’s amazing how quickly the tool was ready to use. It really will make a huge difference to the pace that we can move forward.”  

This page was last updated on:
9 May 2011.

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