As the UK education landscape changes, fresh thinking is being sought to meet the ever-rising demand for places and to manage school estates. As ever, budgets are at the heart of this — even though local authorities still receive some funding directly from central government, the rise of academy status schools, which is creating more independence from local authorities, means local authority estates teams need to be leaner but still make informed decisions on where and how to spend the money.

One of our first steps was to introduce a project management framework flexible enough for any size of project and which sets out the key milestones with gateways at each stage. Gateway meetings are run to enable the programme team to check that the design is based on the agreed standard and that there is no scope creep or additional area above that required for the increase in pupil numbers. The most important area is deciding which schools are chosen for the expansion. The approach taken is a balanced scorecard with weightings applied to each stakeholder’s view to try to reach a consensus.

A Programme Execution Plan (PrEP) was developed and the project management team was inducted to it in a half-day workshop to ensure a consistent approach to all work. Each project manager (PM) had his or her own way of working, so by setting out how projects and the programme were to be managed has meant there is less duplication, rework and reduced margin for error.

In addition to the PrEP, a series of workshops was introduced to increase the knowledge base of the PMs, and ensure that all staff were clear on the processes and parameters within which they could work. These also included sessions on the governance structure of the programme, budgeting, including the Medium Term Financial Plan (MTFP) and statutory processes of the county council.

The cost management of the programme was reviewed, and information provided by project quantity surveyors was challenged and checked. Adopting a consistent format enabled benchmarking, cost reduction and setting targets for cost per square metre.

Most of the Surrey schemes involve increasing numbers of pupils at existing schools on tight urban sites and this creates unique challenges. Much of the work on standardisation that has taken place nationally is for whole new-build schools, so we worked with the council and other partners to develop a Surrey baseline specification for 1FE (form of entry) extensions that sets out acceptable standards.

With the success of the schools programme we are now starting to help Surrey to review its non-schools programme; adapting the schools approach and aligning management across the council’s property service.

“Transforming the management of our expansion programme — with quick access to the status of our projects — has meant we can focus on the risks and issues, with time and confidence on our side.” John Stebbings, Chief Property Officer, Surrey County Council”