Antonia Swinson, CEO of Ethical Property Foundation


Antonia Swinson, CEO of leading UK property advice charity the Ethical Property Foundation, explains why school governors should be aware of their school’s property needs.      

Think back to your own school days – and what do you remember? Your friends? Your teachers? How about the school buildings themselves? Picture those buildings now. Were they well-cared for, comfortable, and welcoming? Or did even the front hallway plunge your heart right down into your scuffed school boots? In my old primary school, the caretaker never bothered to remove the sticky residue of the anti-bomb tape put up on the windows in World War 2 – and this was the late 1960s!  As we stared out longingly at the playground through the grimy windows, what message were we receiving about how valued we were?

As a parent, how much does a school building affect your choice of school for your own children?

School property is an emotive subject for many governors, because it is so much more than bricks and mortar and guttering and gas bills. These buildings shape young lives and will become part of our children’s collective memory – for good or ill.  The trouble is, of course, that everything to do with property costs money.

My organisation, the Ethical Property Foundation, was set up as a registered charity in 2004. We support voluntary organisations with expert independent property advice and education, free at the point of access. Since then, we have supported close to 5000 voluntary organisations, and since 2015 we have been sole referral partner to the Charity Commission for land & property advice.

But why, as a governor, should you pay so much attention to the school property itself? Here are a few basic thoughts for you and your fellow governors to consider.

  • Your premises are an advertisement for your organisation: they are the physical expression of your culture, management skills and success. What are visitors’ first impressions?
  • It’s more cost effective to keep on top of maintenance and plan what needs doing and when. Responding to failures and emergencies is expensive.
  • Don’t rely on long-standing maintenance relationships without testing them in the marketplace for good value.
  • Prepare robust maintenance and property budgets, including all aspects of everyday property management: building fabric, mechanical & electrical installations (everything from plugs to chairlifts), utilities (water, heating and lighting), cleaning, waste management, furniture, fittings, equipment and security.
  • Create a robust achievable capital works programme for replacing or refurbishing key elements in your property.
  • Get board agreement to fund property maintenance, putting money aside to fund essential capital works.
  • Remember – cutting corners in the short term often means you’ll pay thousands more down the line.

A big part of our work in 2019 will centre on property education. We want to make sure that good property planning and managing risk is not seen as an extra, best left for professionals, but part of everyone’s life. Our ambition is for a confident resilient property-savvy civil society, capable of engaging with property professionals on an equal footing. Never forget that your school property is every bit as important as that shiny glass commercial office building down the road – more so in fact, because it is your buildings which serve generations of young people, contribute to the social cohesion in our communicates and provide the physical environment for the education of the future workforce.

Last month I attended one of our basic premises’ management workshop in south London which showed how small actions can make a huge difference not just in money but in morale too. How I wish I could put on some flared trousers and travel back in time to my old primary school with a bucket of hot water and a scrubbing brush and take all that sticky wartime residue off the classroom windows.  I am sure my class would enjoy helping (particularly when the water fights started!).

More about the Ethical Property Foundation

We offer free support to small community schools, and a range of low-cost consultancy services for voluntary and statutory organisations which own or manage their property, including Free Schools, Academies, and small private schools. We offer property strategies to support trustees and CEOs plan for future expansion; feasibility studies to support funding applications; basic practical premises training for non-property staff, plus simple property health checks – comprising a one-day site visit with a brief report, specifically designed as a diagnostic tool for hard-pressed governors who are trying to prioritise spending.  As a charity ourselves, we can offer this service with highly experienced staff at a much lower price than any commercial property company. Our clients know that their fees are supporting the free advice we give to tiny local voluntary groups.

We are delighted to work in collaborative partnership with Governors for Schools. Many of the property professionals and charity managers we work with are either school governors already or see the role as a great next step in their personal development, while serving their community.