The great estates

How are innovative working practices and modern technologies changing estates management, especially in the busy summer months?

If the staff and students are the most visible aspect of a school, then estates are often the most overlooked. Many independent schools are blessed with gorgeous and expansive estates, yet for most they are simply part of the backdrop, the scenery: coming to the fore in marketing materials but otherwise taken for granted.

This attitude is a little unfair. Estates require continual upkeep and maintenance and, especially in the otherwise quiet summer months, the staff in charge of them are often the busiest in the school. But are technology and innovation working practices key to ensuring these ancient estates benefit from thoroughly modern management?

“A quiet summer?” said Tan Tootill, Head of Building and Engineering at Downside School, “Not a chance! I doubt Downside is very different from many other independent schools, in that increasingly its buildings are viewed and utilised as commercial assets.”

In recent decades year-round usage at schools has become increasingly common, but it is now an inescapable feature of their business models. Like universities, and other institutions with generous estates and high overheads, schools have realised their grounds and buildings need to remain in nearly continual use to remain pro table. As Tan argued: “Historically, the summer holidays were seen as a timeto undertake major refurbishment projects or essential ‘shut-down’ maintenance. To some extent that is still true today, but the commercial reality of my situation has meant a change to this traditional approach.”

In recent decades year-round usage at schools has become increasingly common, but it is now an inescapable feature of their business models

With year-round usage, working practices have had to change. Summer schools, conferences and sports and activity camps are commonplace in the school holidays. Estate managers have had to adapt to these unprecedented pressures. Flexibility and ‘agile’ working practices – concepts imported from modish business start-ups – are increasingly part of their response. “The summer is our busiest time,” commented James Wright, Head of Properties at Giggleswick School, “juggling maintenance work around the school’s commercial lettings and international summer school programme. This year we will have over 900 people using our facilities through the holidays.” These pressures mean that “planning and timing is crucial to managing our high workload and workflow across an extensive site and wide range of properties”.

The nature of school life, which involves a varying timetable of users and demands, all interlinking (ideally) like a well-oiled machine, means that managers must balance improvisation and long-range organisation. Agile and responsive working are key to this balancing act. “A strong focus on detailed project management” is important, Tan argued. As is recognising the “commercial necessity of term-time working”. However, year-round working comes with its own challenges: “Proving to school staff that ‘complex projects’ can be delivered without signi cant disruption or safeguarding risks”. But once these assurances are in place, it provides “great scope for carrying out future work throughout the school year.”

Technology has also proved a boon to this juggling act. “We really value estates management so ware like Quadpro to help us efficiently schedule and manage our projects,” said James. “I also find CAD is very useful too – it saves having to go out and physically measure something when you can call it up on the computer.” It might seem incongruous that Giggleswick – which was founded in 1512 and is surrounded by stunning scenery of the Yorkshire Dales relies on techniques and technologies adopted from the world of cutting-edge business. But Tan asserts that these methods are widespread and embedded in Downside’s estates management as well. “We break projects into bite-sized, more manageable pieces which can be done over the course of several terms or even years. [We also] carry out as much work as possible in advance of starting a main project, taking maximum advantage of short periods of shut-down throughout the year.”

With so much more technology to maintain across our facilities, properties and machinery, my team all need to be IT experts too!

But while technology has its advantages, both Tan and James are agreed that it “should be seen as a tool – not a solution”. As Tan claimed: “I have experienced some technology that clearly outstrips the capacity of the bright human mind.” James said that it has certainly changed the demands on estates staff: “With so much more technology to maintain across our facilities, properties and machinery, my team all need to be IT experts too!”

Agile working practices and technology are not magic bullets to resolve the ongoing challenges of maintaining and keeping profitable school estates. But as demand increases, and the drive to keep estates in near continual use grows more acute, they are certainly part of the conversation. Nothing is likely to replace the traditional foundations of good estate management in the near future. Knowledgeable, enthusiastic staff and old-fashioned hard work are still crucial pillars of effective estates management. But as schools have had to grow more commercially savvy, it makes sense for them to adopt the best initiatives of the business world. Sitting back and taking it easy has never been an option for estates managers; as Tan attested: “There is still much work to be done!”