Being bursar is always a balancing act and nowhere is that more evident than when planning major works. We experience myriad tensions. There are advantages to delivering infrastructure projects when there is no one on campus but we also have to maximise revenue generation from our assets.
We want to take advantage of an empty campus but our teams and contractors also take holidays. An empty campus can be a false friend; there is a hard deadline when the school opens so project -overruns are a big problem.
“We want to take advantage of an empty campus but our teams and contractors also take holidays.”
Like many independent schools, we try to maximise the income we generate from our campus. During the summer, we host the Gordonstoun International Summer School, an extraordinarily broad programme that encompasses everything from computing to bush craft and tall ship sailing.
During Easter we run our Active Revision course, which uses neuroscience to increase cognition and improve memory ahead of GCSE and SQA exams. Interspersed between these courses, we host weddings, national rugby and football team training courses and other educational gatherings such as Tae Kwando and drama camps. This limits the extent of the refurbishment activities we can undertake – but we do squeeze major works in.
So how do we ensure that we strike the right balance?
Of course, the planning for most works starts long before they take place. For us, the starting point was back in 2019, when we developed a masterplan for new buildings on our campus and a long-term capital investment plan to fund the activity. Our vision, to be delivered in our centenary year of 2034, is of a campus that maximises our ability to provide sector-leading character education long into the future.
We have a rolling five-year plan with high level capital expenditure allocated to each project. For works such as redecoration, refurbishment, new roofs, etc, our very capable head of estates and project co-ordinator have good relationships with local contractors.
“We need to work to preserve our heritage buildings which have global significance.”
We carry out tendering processes for big projects where there are multiple contractors available (more on that later) and then put in place detailed planning and monitoring for the works. Our project co-ordinator has a surveying background, so she supervises each project and signs it off to ensure it meets our standards.
Not all of our buildings can be refurbished, and we are four years into the masterplan that will see us build a new classroom village and replace some of our boarding houses. But, in parallel, we need to work to preserve our heritage buildings which have global significance as the places where our new king, his father Prince Philip and other members of the Royal family were educated.
Staff accommodation is a key refurbishment task. Staff often depart and arrive during the summer, leaving a few weeks for us to get into the accommodation, so we will be using this window this summer as we do every year.
The summer is also when education colleagues take long holidays and this can provide opportunities for us to do major works. However, this year we will also be putting our art building out of commission in order to replace the roof. However, art is a major part of our summer school programme and so, in typical Gordonstoun style, we will be moving this outside, doing art under canvas in marquees; the students will have great fun.
“In the remote north of Scotland, our biggest bottleneck for improvement works is availability of contractors.”
There are a host of maintenance tasks that get done in the two weeks that the school is empty, with no summer programme activities running. One of these is removing any silt that has built up in our INKA (the round concrete part of the plant that you’d recognise from public sewage works). Yuck. And our IT team, which won’t be doing as much reactive work as they do during term time, will be working on a project to upgrade the IT in our classroom and some of our operational departments.
Challenges and solutions
These will be amongst some of this summer’s achievements, but there have been challenges to overcome to enable us to deliver them. In the remote north of Scotland, our biggest bottleneck for improvement works is availability of contractors and, for this reason, much of our major capital work happens in term time.
In this past year, we have redecorated all of our boarding houses, largely during term time, by putting in place a “decant” plan. This idea was born out of our Covid experience when we used an older, mothballed boarding house as a quarantine facility. During the refurbishment works, each student spent two weeks in this decant boarding house. This was a win-win for us because it provided an opportunity for colleagues considering pastoral roles to try them out in a smaller house and has proven a fertile training ground for pastoral staff.
“Unexpected works can also arise when a donor wants to fund something that isn’t on our plan.”
With an ageing estate, we also have to be super-flexible with our plans so that emerging issues can be fixed. Communication is really important here; all of the senior leadership team are involved in prioritising our capital spend and are kept informed when something unexpected arises. Because we have a long-term plan, it is easier to reassure people when works will be completed.
Unexpected works can also arise when a donor wants to fund something that isn’t on our plan. It’s a nice problem to have, and we always try to take the work on if it’s an improvement that would need to be made at some point.
But sometimes this creates a conflict with planned work so we have to weigh things up. I’m afraid that I don’t have a panacea for this, but I find that involving the full senior leadership team in discussions really does make a difference. This allows us to explore the conflicts from different perspectives and come up with the best overall solution for the school.
I’ve definitely learnt about the danger of employee exhaustion by trying to do too much. In the summer of 2020, we tried to take advantage of an empty campus to get a load of work done and at the same time we had constant fluctuations in Covid guidance which meant that our estates teams had to re-set classrooms and boarding house furniture several times.
I underestimated the impact of Covid on my colleagues and it took them by surprise too. We had good counselling and other support services in place but I take more care now in pacing our works. We also have more wellbeing initiatives in place so that my team can recognise when things are getting to be too much.
Leadership and in-house expertise
Leadership at all the different levels within the team is critical. During my time at Gordonstoun, we’ve built up a leadership structure that underpins the planning and management of works. We’ve been able to do this because we’ve made structural changes to focus resources on the places they’re most needed.
In the past, the team was made up of brilliant, dedicated people but they were set up to be completely reactive. When asked for a five-year plan, they had difficulty finding the time to produce it.
“We’ve built up a leadership structure that underpins the planning and management of works.”
Really specific expertise is needed to complete this task. For a while, we used a great third party quantity surveyor as a project manager but now we have recruited qualified staff into the team whose primary role is to plan and manage works. Whilst our contractors were very good, our new in-house team has saved the school so much money by challenging prices and ensuring high quality work that they have recouped the cost of their own wages.
We’ve had ups and downs in our journey towards longer-term planning but it’s been worth it. Our students are delighted with their newly decorated boarding houses, everyone loves our new buildings and we’ve worked together to find a way to implement the change in a way that has kept everyone on board.
1. Book contractors far in advance
Even if you don’t know exactly what they’ll be doing, book slots and keep in close contact with them as you go through your planning process. Contractor availability in our part of the UK is our biggest bottleneck.
2. Make sure you’ve got the right people
Often maintenance teams’ strengths lie in their ability to be reactive. This can conflict with the need for longer-term planning. Before you do any long-term planning, check to what extent the team can lead on such a task. You may need to bring in different expertise if you don’t have this in-house.
3. Prioritise but also be dynamic in your planning
You may be able to squeeze in lower priority projects because a contractor becomes available or because a resident is going on holiday. Be ready to do this.
4. Move outdoors
At Gordonstoun we use our outdoor facilities as an extension of our inside spaces; this can create useful space when works are being carried out.
5. Plan to complete major works during term time
Schools buildings are rarely used at full capacity all the time so it’s not impossible to undertake major works during termtime. Can you decant activities elsewhere on your campus so that facilities are freed up for major works?
6. Relationships are really important
Build consensus and a shared understanding around planned works. We couldn’t have decanted our boarding houses without really good relationships between the estates and pastoral teams.
7. Involve the SLT in planning and prioritising
Linked to the point above, our whole senior leadership team owns the capex plan and everyone is able to explain to their own teams why we’ve chosen certain priorities. This takes heat off the teams who, whilst they implement the plans, have little control over them.
7. Be careful not to run your teams and your contractors too hard
It’s tempting to do as much as possible but everyone needs a break and sometimes pushing for ‘stretch goals’ can have really negative consequences. As with everything, there is a balance to be struck. It’s our role as leaders to keep an eye on our people and make sure they’re not over-committed to the point of burnout.
Developing Gordonstoun’s campus masterplan:
This article first appeared in the summer 2023 print edition of School Management Plus.