Ensuring school estates are safe and well-maintained is one of the key responsibilities of your school’s governing body or trust’s board. Naturally, this can mean estates managers are on the receiving end of a lot of questions (not to mention pressure) to make sure buildings and land are in tip-top condition.

Whilst site teams, governors, and trustees are all on the same page when it comes to ensuring the school estate is safe for students and staff, priorities can sometimes differ.

So, earlier this year we ran a webinar on GEMS (Good Estate Management for Schools) in action and how estates managers can take more of a collaborative approach with governors or trustees towards the common goal of good estate management.

Keep reading to explore:

  1. The fundamentals of GEMS and its impact on your school
  2. Common questions governors and trustees ask site teams about estate management
  3. How to ensure you have a true understanding of the condition of all sites and buildings in your care to know where to prioritise remedial works and funding applications

Let’s get started!

What are the fundamentals of GEMS?

GEMS is a manual from the DfE that advises schools and responsible bodies on how best to manage their school buildings and land. It aims to ensure schools can maintain a healthy, safe, and sustainable environments in the most cost-effective manner.

GEMS promotes the use of the following documents to support schools to taking the most strategic approach to managing school estates:

  • Estate vision – your ambition for the estate in 5 to 10 years’ time
  • Estate strategy – how the vision will be carried out and projected funding for estate development
  • Asset management plan – this should include asset data and information to inform day-to-day operational activities on the school estate, and necessary work to maintain it
  • Strategic review process – to help you understand how well the estate is performing and your options for the future

How does estate condition affect school outcomes?

Schools and MATs have numerous outcomes that can be positively or negatively affected by the estate or environment. For instance, how the estate supports your curriculum vision or organisation’s brand. 

If one of your schools has a rich sporting culture, then you’ll probably be focusing a lot of energy on maintaining and developing sports facilities – that makes sense. But you can’t forget about the bigger picture of your organisation’s estate, like the state of its drains, roofs, and windows, or its energy consumption rates (the list goes on!).

If you’re directly involved in good estate management, then we know you’ll understand that the impact of GEMS stretches further than just the school estate itself. But communicating this to the wider workforce who aren’t as involved ‘on the ground’ can sometimes feel challenging.

A collaborative approach to good estate management 

Whilst many of the activities detailed in GEMS usually fall into the remit of an estate manager, it’s the governors and trustees who have ultimate responsibility for the estate. So, communication between them and the site team servicing assets and carrying out preventative maintenance need to have clarity, direction, and teamwork at their core.

GEMS should form more of a holistic conversation that’s underpinned by perspective. At the end of the day, you can’t grade the performance of a school or academy without talking about the quality of the estate! So, we thought who better to ask about the types of questions governors and trustees have around good estate management than those who joined our webinar, an audience mainly made up of estates professionals.

Common questions from governors and trustees about GEMS

They told us that the most common estate management topics they’re asked about include:

  • Reliability of contractors
  • Good data management
  • Condition and environmental improvements
  • Planning financial budgets to meet priorities
  • Ensuring school buildings are functional
  • Evidencing compliance

There was also a particularly interesting point raised by an attendee around trustees wanting to know ‘too much’ about GEMS and the school’s approach to estate management, which they feel is starting to restrain them. Can trustees or governors will be too interested in GEMS?

Good estate management: A common goal

When the common goal is to ensure a safe working environment for staff and students, then we’d argue not. But if you feel the interest is turning into a problem that’s negatively affecting your site team’s ability to carry out daily tasks (or even their morale), then it’s a conversation that needs to be had. Maybe it’s as simple as the trustee having a background in facilities management, so they feel they can add some value!

We also saw a lot of answers coming in about growing trusts and MATs. Acquiring more schools and academies often brings to light questions around their current estates management process and data. For example, you might quickly realise that the school you’ve just taken on has little to no present or historic condition information. That’s probably going to make you feel a little anxious about the work that needs doing, from arranging condition surveys to managing change.

Is good estate management in practice recognised?

Whilst these responses made for a thought-provoking session, there was one point raised that most of our attendees seemed to relate to. And that was the idea that governing boards ‘often focus on the negatives, not the positive changes [estates teams] have been making!’.

This was supported by how you display and share data relating to GEMS with staff indirectly involved in estates management, e.g. in a RAG-rated (red, amber, green) system. One respondent shared that ‘the thing about these [RAG] types of display is that trustees and governors immediately home into the reds and ignore the greens’.

Best practice for informed decisions

Now, we think it’s only natural that most of us would be more drawn to a ‘red’ than ‘green’ item. After all, that’s the beauty of a RAG-rated system, be it for site condition or risk management! You can immediately see areas that require your attention, and you can react straightaway with measures to reduce the chance of incidents. But we also agree that when you’ve taken the steps to mitigate that item and turn it from red to amber, or hopefully green, then recognition would be appreciated – and not just for staff morale.

Good estate management is also learning about what’s worked well in the past (and not so well) to make the most informed decisions moving forwards. If you’ve got a bank of condition items whose ratings have reduced – i.e. moved away from being ‘red’ – then you’re clearly doing something right!

How to take a holistic approach to GEMS

This is one of the areas where our school compliance management software, Every Compliance, really comes into play. Take your estates strategy, which is likely to be a single document or a set of documents. Best practice is to store this as a ‘live’ document – one that can be updated and changed in line with your evolving estates activities and strategy. (And one that might pull RAG data to evidence current areas of concerns.)

If you have this document readily available for your trustees or governing body to access and view, you’re all actively involved in the estate management of the school. They can see where your focus lies as a site professional, what you’re concerned about, and the strategy you’ve put together to overcome these issues.

How Every Compliance supports good estate management

This set of documents can be stored, amended, and distributed in a single place within Every Compliance, meaning you’ve got one source of truth for your estates team, governing body or trust board, and SLT. You can also add user access restrictions, helping you to ensure the right eyes are on the right documents at the right time!

Whilst priorities or approaches to GEMS may differ across different staff at your school or trust, the common goal remains the same. And by adapting your approach to estate management to be more aware and inclusive of each team’s needs, you’re on the right path to making your sites safer for students, staff, and visitors alike.

For more information on how we can support your school or MAT’s estates strategy, we’re a call or email away!