Preparing for MAT Estates Growth: Identifying and Responding to Increased Liabilities

Terry Stocks
Managing a multi academy trust (MAT) is very different from the role of a traditional school principal who manages the school under local authority control.

A school's primary function is to teach children, and the senior and governing management teams therefore have the skill-sets aligned to education rather than estate management. However, taking control of a premises or another academy brings liabilities that will compound budget pressures on the overall MAT finances, potentially to the detriment of educational attainment.

Budgets are devolved to the central trust board of directors that oversees the running of the MAT, but so are the liabilities and responsibilities that were previously looked after by the local authority, and from which they could leverage a benefit of scale. School insurances, waste collection, staff pay and benefits are a few services previously provided by the local authority.

The board's new obligations include the Health and Safety at Work Act, Housing and Regeneration Act, Control of Asbestos Regulations and mechanical plant testing. In extremis, failure to demonstrably discharge statutory and regulatory obligations could result in personal legal liability, prosecution and imprisonment, to highlight a few.

A 'buyer beware' approach should therefore be adopted by schools and academies which are converting/expanding. A school transferring to academy status swiftly attracts many of the liabilities and statutory obligations of a local authority, but now has to deal with them on its own. Managing risk is a key function of the organisation's management and a risk contingency for poor facilities should therefore be outlined and planned for.

Managing risk is a key function of the organisation's management...

Poor services such as life expired and defective water distribution pipework, defective/ageing roof covering, and ageing under-maintained boiler or plant etc., can close an entire school.

Foresight of potential replacement/maintenance issues can help focus available budgets on risk mitigation. Additional budget allocation could also be sought through energy efficiency bids (Salix and similar schemes), ESFA loans scheme, CIF funding for academies', application for funding from local authority planning levies - Section 106 planning agreements and leveraging land held in the estate.

A MAT's CEO/Board Chair has direct responsibility for ensuring their premises are safe, not just for staff and pupils but also for the public, hirers and service contract staff. Roles can be allocated to ensure key registers are updated and key plant has been certified as safe. However, if there is not a demonstrable safe audit reporting system in place, to verify good intent that this work has been completed, the legal liability for any health and safety breach lies with the 'controlling body' - the MAT CEO/Board Chair. An external audit report and works prioritisation system helps mitigate this risk, ensuring necessary items are included in maintenance programmes or funding bids, and helping demonstrate action in the face of health and safety issues.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to these problems, so having good cost-effective professional advice is key. There are many professional service delivery offers in the market. However, they tend to be focused on discrete elements, resulting in pockets of good practice, rather than better holistic outcomes across estates. Procuring individual services takes time and there remains the issue of ensuring continuity across the boundaries of their service provision. Faithful+Gould have joined with key education experts and real estate leaders to offer a one-stop support service called TEEAM (Total Estates and Energy Asset Management).

Faithful+Gould have joined with key education experts and real estate leaders to offer a one-stop support service called TEEAM

Our 'MAT Maker' support service focuses on the early stages of MAT transfer, undertaking initial reviews to identify potential liabilities. We work with the school/MAT senior teams to identify strategies to mitigate risk, prior to full academisation/expansion. We support additional funding applications and provide 'body of evidence' reports to reinforce funding applications through ESFA and local authorities. Support is also offered in convening the legal MAT entity and ensuring statutory posts, documentation and policy are in place. Post-academisation/expansion support is provided to maximise maintenance and procurement efficiencies.

Faithful+Gould offer the option of a full procurement, delivery and maintenance planning service, for a fixed monthly fee, effectively outsourcing your estates planning and delivery function, in addition to working on project based commissions. This outsources risk and services and ensures small academies can benefit from larger-scale procurement, as they would have done under local authority provision.

The real measure of success is pupils' educational attainment, and there is evidence that the built environment has a major impact on an individual's concentration and attainment, as well as on business outcomes. Budget allocation will always be a pressure, and the estate could be considered an easy area to cut, as it may not have an instant impact. However, continued under-investment and unfocused investment eventually results in a poor teaching environment. This puts pressure on school infrastructure, risking sudden loss of service, incident or non-compliance with statutory obligations, - and potentially leading to personal liability and poor organisational outcomes.

In summary, the estate will not necessarily be a top priority for an expanding/converting MAT. However, a well-chosen partner supports you through the process, helping maximise available budgets and minimise assumed risk.

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