As 2023 approaches – how can schools look beyond the next 12 months to plan for challenges ahead?
With the end of another challenging term under its belt, the school community has a couple of weeks of respite before gearing up for 2023. With most of 2022 spent managing the fallout from the pandemic and heading straight into the cost-of-living crisis and energy price hikes, the backdrop for the education sector remains taxing to say the least. But perhaps the real exam question for schools is can they lift themselves from survival mode to plan for some fundamental issues – not just for 2023 but for the next decade and beyond?
Financials hold the key
The budget is clearly the backbone to every school and any real forward planning is tricky in such uncertain times. In the Autumn Statement 22, Jeremy Hunt announced an extra investment in school funding in England for 2023-24 and 2024-25. Analysis from the Institute of Fiscal Studies shows that, in real terms, this is £2bn each year in extra funding and that this (with all things being equal) will allow school spending to return back to 2010 levels. So, school funding should be greater than school costs by 2024/25 and should provide some easing to perpetually strained budgets. The announcement on 6th December that schools and colleges in England will be allocated a share of £500 million to spend on energy efficiency upgrades, to help save on bills during the winter months and manage energy consumption has come as welcome news to the sector. Particularly as these unprecedented increases in energy costs sit alongside other financial pressures including rising staff salary costs and sharp inflationary increases on goods and services. Estimations show that on average, a primary school will receive approximately £16,000, a secondary school will get £42,000 and a further education college group will benefit from £290,000.
Some much needed positive investment but is this enough to get schools to think beyond everyday problems?
Moving from a survival mindset
At the recent Schools and Academies Show it was a real credit to the sector that people were doing just that, debating longer-term issues and what needs to be planned for, rather than just focusing on the here and now. One of the keynote debates focused on looking at the students who will be coming through the education system in the next decade and anticipating what they might need to enable them to contribute to the world of work in 30 to 60 years’ time. What will jobs look like in 2090? And how can the education system – from the curriculum to the estate – make sure it is future fit for this and the demands it will bring to provide the best opportunities for students?
Another more immediate issue – with equally long-term implications – that was high on the agenda is what needs to be done to hit sustainability targets. This is all part of the Department for Education’s focus on creating ‘a green, sustainable education estate that is resilient to the impacts of climate change’ and COP27 has certainly turned the pressure up for action to be taken. What was interesting to hear was our children are much more engaged around the sustainability agenda and wanted schools to do more. What is evident -and encouraging is that the journey of schools to a more sustainable outlook has started, driving policy, initiatives and innovations. That in turn will lead to a more focused strategy for both policy and the building improvements for the future.
Real strategic estate management
The government is clearly asking the education sector to plan strategically for their estate and getting the most out of it – now and for the future. This is where those of us working in the built environment sector have a massive role to play in helping schools to adopt a strategic asset management approach. While looking at the immediate pressing issues of what has to be done today to create efficiencies, such as re-roofing, window replacements, boiler and LED replacement projects, we must also focus on a longer-term approach. Co-ordinating all areas of estate management, from planned maintenance, future capital spend and decarbonisation to compliance issues and other funding priorities. We know from our own work with schools and academy trusts that this is where the benefits kick in that really make a difference.
Student first vs fabric first
We must shift to a ‘student first’ rather than ‘fabric first’ way of working in estate management.
But that requires a shift in policy as well as culture. We know that sustainable initiatives within schools are vital to reducing carbon emissions and reducing costs and that the mindset and appetite from school leaders is there. We have to make sure we mirror that throughout our built environment supply chain and we must continue to invest in and implement new technology and embed sustainability in everything we do. We have seen some fantastic innovations such as a hydro wall embedded with plants that purify rainwater so it can be used for drinking water for students. These innovations need to sit alongside the everyday fundamentals such as LED lighting installations, solar pv arrays, pipe insulation schemes, and the installation of energy-efficient heating controls which will help schools reach their net carbon zero objectives. This will not only help reduce expenditure, but it will make them more energy efficient and resilient during the winter in future years.
There is no doubt that schools face ongoing uncertainty as we head into 2023. But there is much we can do to support this vital sector to plan – not just for the challenges of the next 12 months – but for the decades and future generations ahead.