Adding a new school: Understanding the estate

02 Mar 2018

The Educational Excellence Everywhere White Paper published in March 2016 set out the Government’s proposals to convert all state-funded schools in England to academy status by 2022.  The process of conversion has focused on failing schools with Multi-Academy Trusts formed to help deliver an economy of scale on infrastructure and management such as purchasing and payroll formally undertaken by the local authority.

When it comes to evaluating the assets that the Trust will operate and manage, understanding the ‘real estate’ element is significant for safeguarding the on-going operation of the school.   This part of the process relies heavily on a property risk assessment.  Once completed this provides the Academy management with an overview of any potential issues in relation to property as well as providing a good basis on which to negotiate the conversion.

Property risk assessment

The risk assessment is in fact embedded in the land questionnaire that is part of the application process for a new school to become part of a multi-academy trust.  The land questionnaire is just one of many documents that have to be submitted to the ESFA (Education and Skills Funding Agency).  Although there is a ‘desktop’ assessment, the reality is that some aspects of the property that could then become challenges for the development of the Academy Trust in the future, could be missed without a more rigorous approach. There is a requirement to understand all of the aspects of the land and buildings that form part of the school to be transferred and these may require specific expertise in order to assess and analyse the various elements that need to be recorded. 

The land questionnaire

Too often assessments of the boundaries for example are made from drawings that are out of date or inaccurate.  A physical inspection of the site gives a more certain evaluation.  For example the surveyor can inspect any encroachments on the school land from neighbouring properties.  A physical inspection can also highlight where the dioceses or local authority may have held back certain parts of the land, although on the drawing this would still show as being part of the school estate.    In addition some of the land that is currently used by the school or on the plot itself may no longer be held by the local authority, such as a caretaker’s house or sports pavilion.  These may have been previously sold to a third party and no longer form part of the title.

Particular restrictions as to the use of the land are often covered by covenants or easements.  Covenants apply when the land has been bequeathed for the building of the school. Onerous covenants can apply that may restrict on going use or might for example, prevent any future sale of part of the land to developers for housing or commercial buildings.  Easements apply to any right of way that may have been agreed.  This could relate to pipework, cabling or for the community.  Although not of an immediate concern, use of the land that conflicts with the easements could prevent proposed changes to how the school is configured, which could store up issues for the Trust later down the line.

Property assessment

Other considerations for any Trust when evaluating property risk are related to outstanding planning applications and shared usage.  Proposed highway works or major development works could inevitably disrupt, not only the life of the school, but access by staff or for deliveries.  Any agreements that the school has for the shared use of facilities, such as with a local sports team, no matter how informal, should also be taken in to consideration.

All of these factors not only affect the valuation of the land and school buildings, but they are critical for its future development.  Understanding these aspects in detail is a means of future-proofing the transfer in terms of risk and any potential development.

Paul Greenwood, Managing Director, Stanley Hicks, part of The Bellrock Group

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