Building an efficient education estate

LocatED was launched in 2017 to support the Department for Education with the delivery of its free schools programme by buying sites quickly and at best value. Lara Newman, chief executive of LocatED, shares what the organisation has a achieved and how its work has evolved over the years

LocatED was launched in 2017 to support the Department for Education (DfE) with the delivery of its free schools programme; buying sites quickly and at best value, proactively managing sites not currently in use, and selling surplus sites.
Over the past five years, our work has grown to include the delivery of innovative education-led mixed-use developments, strategic property advice to public bodies and the education sector, and estate efficiency and improvement initiatives for schools and colleges.
Through all of this, we support the government in building an efficient, world-class education estate – for communities today and in the future.

Securing sites for new free schools

To date, we have acquired more than 200 sites, creating in excess of 100,000 potential school places for children across England. Our regionally based Acquisitions Team draws on its extensive property experience, local knowledge, and network of commercial contacts to negotiate at pace. We consider sites that can deliver temporary school buildings as small as a few thousand feet, to permanent buildings upwards of 120,000 sq. ft. We don’t dictate the acreage of sites because we can – and have – delivered free schools over multiple storeys on constrained sites. Since 2017 we have broadened the types of properties which can be used for schools and have been involved with some really creative redevelopments.
London Screen Academy (LSA), for example, is a sixth form free school for up to 1,000 students, founded by some of the UK’s most successful film producers. It is now housed in an incredible 85,000 sq. ft. former 1920s radio and television factory in Islington.

Despite the site’s potential, it had been vacant for a number of years before it was acquired and eventually used for LSA. We oversaw the redevelopment of this building, working closely with contractors and Architecture Initiative to preserve the heritage façade while undertaking a significant reconfiguration of the industrial interior; stripping back to the internal frame of the building, and forming a new three-storey professional film production studio with supporting facilities such as hair and makeup rooms and professional sound studios, surrounded by teaching and workshop spaces that are truly versatile and flexible.     The project was named refurbishment of the year at the Education Estates Awards 2020, recognising the difference it has made to the educational experience.
Converting buildings for education

Houlton School is another example of a non‑educational building being converted for education use. In 2020, we secured a Grade II listed former radio station for this project. The secondary academy is part of the Houlton development in Rugby, which will see Urban & Civic deliver almost 6,000 homes alongside neighbourhood and community facilities.
Our in-house technical and planning experts provided crucial early advice on heritage considerations to support the sensitive transformation of this historic building into a modern and inspiring learning environment, delivered by Urban & Civic. The school, which opened in September 2021, is complemented with new buildings. This includes a purpose-built sports centre, dance and acting studios, and a state‑of-the-art communications centre, fully resourced with a professional radio and television broadcasting station to continue the historic legacy of the site.

The project has been recognised with four awards this year, including Project of the Year (Construction News Awards) and Best Use of Heritage in Placemaking (Planning Awards).

Delivering schools and housing through innovative mixed‑use schemes

As well as acquiring land and buildings, we manage the delivery of education-led mixed‑use schemes to support the efficient and cost-effective provision of new schools. These developments can make it viable to create much-needed schools in dense urban areas, where the cost of land might otherwise be too high. Typically, these schemes include a residential development on the same site and the sale of the homes can be used to offset some or all of the cost of the new school.

We currently have five mixed-use developments in progress; three secondary schools creating thousands of new school places, and two special schools which will deliver vital education provision in their local communities. In total, these schemes will provide more than 500 homes, a proportion of which will be affordable accommodation.

Our first mixed-use scheme to complete, the award-winning Fulham Boys’ School (FBS), opened its doors to pupils last year. The new permanent home for FBS was delivered on an extremely constrained inner-city site, as part of a development with police facilities and apartments. It was crucial, given the site’s limited size, to maximise the learning and play spaces through creative design and efficient space planning. The result is a high quality 800-place secondary school designed by Architecture Initiative, with a 4.3m deep basement housing a three-court sports hall, a performance studio and theatre space, enabling more of the plot to be retained as an outdoor courtyard and play area.

Unlocking potential in existing school sites

England’s school estate is vast, with many buildings from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. The department has allocated over £13 billion since 2015 to improve the condition of schools. In addition, the School Rebuilding Programme will transform buildings at 500 schools over the next decade. To maximise opportunities to go further, we work with the DfE to explore ways of unlocking the potential in existing school sites to address capital need through a range of estate efficiency initiatives.

In 2018, we launched the Surplus Land for Housing Pilot with the DfE, to explore how to reconfigure a selection of school properties with surplus buildings or land in areas of high housing need. The aim was to unlock funds for reinvestment in school buildings and sports facilities while releasing land for housing. Linked to this is ‘building up’, where we have identified schools with condition need in areas where the residential values can enable homes to be built above a newly constructed school, to self-fund projects and minimise the loss of outdoor play space.

One of the projects identified through our estate efficiency work is an ambitious mixed-use development in Lewisham which will deliver a fully funded, brand new primary school with an increased play area, together with around 90 homes (including affordable housing) above the school.

Proactive asset management

We oversee a rolling portfolio of around 90 sites owned by the DfE, which have been acquired for new schools and are awaiting development to begin. These sites are typically vacant, and we manage them until responsibility is transferred to a contractor for works, or to a school trust when it is ready to open on the site. Our Asset Management Team ensures these properties are safe, secure, and meet statutory compliance.

The team also delivers ‘meanwhile uses’ for vacant sites, which either support the local community or generate income to help offset holding costs, while retaining flexibility for the properties’ future intended use. Examples include flexible and affordable workspaces to support SMEs, car parking schemes, guardian schemes to provide affordable accommodation in areas of need, and film shoots. We also open sites for community use, and during the pandemic we worked with the NHS to use vacant buildings as vaccination centres in Hastings, Derby, Heathrow, Liverpool, and Letchworth.

Looking forward, LocatED will continue to support the delivery of the free schools programme, make additional efficiencies and improvements to the education estate, and contribute to cross-government initiatives such as levelling up and the provision of housing in England.