Suffolk County Council SWISS Project

In 2010, Suffolk County Council decided to develop a pilot project with a group of schools in order to fulfil their Health and Wellbeing aim of ‘more and better services to communities for less’

Where community use was in operation on school sites, it was often running on a deficit which the council were paying for, and there were wide inconsistencies in the management styles and customer service being offered.
A four stage pilot was planned, working with 12 schools in a geographical area who already worked together in an education partnership.

The four stages involved:

  1. Identifying the current state of community use on school sites by carrying out a community use audit and analysis
  2. Developing a support strategy and recommendations for improving the community use of school services
  3. Implementing improvements through a’ Community Use Support Framework’ (CUSF)
  4. Dissemination of learning from the pilot area across the whole county and beyond

Stages one and two took a year to complete and were commissioned by the County Council and delivered by a specialist Consultant (The Sport, Leisure and Culture Consultancy). The project is currently in stage three which is being delivered by Abbeycroft Leisure – a Charitable Leisure Trust which manages two Leisure Centres and sports development for St Edmundsbury Borough Council and also operates its own budget gym. Stage one identified some key issues which were used to develop a support framework to improve the community provision at the target schools.

The key areas which needed to be addressed included:

  • Poor operational systems and procedures – such as inefficiencies in bookings, administration and cash collection processes
  • Lack of understanding of catchment areas, target markets and limited marketing activity
  • Pricing that was not optimised for commercial or community users
  • Limited objective setting, performance and financial management

The implementation of the CUSF is an 18 month process which will then be reviewed and disseminated. Abbeycroft Leisure have 3 Officers engaged in the project and are using a two phased approach, first addressing the needs of those schools operating a community use/ dual use managed site (as they were in most need), then tackling the issues facing the lettings based schools.

Facilities

The facilities are sports and leisure focused and include Sports Halls, Fitness Suites, All Weather Pitches, and two Swimming Pools (one of which is a sensory pool at a Special School). The project did not include any capital allocation – but did look at the rationalisation of the current facilities available for community use. 

Management model

Four of the schools operate a traditional ‘dual use’ service whereby the school manage bookings in house (one school had bought in support from a third party specialist). This is generally club/group regular bookings but with some ‘pay and play’ and most of the schools employ a designated post to manage the operation such as a Centre Manager.

“..making informed decisions about the future of community use”

Eight of the schools operate a lettings based approach whereby clubs have a regular booking via the school administration team to use a facility and there is a simple caretaking arrangement to open and close the facility.

The first part of the CUSF process was to revisit why each school was offering community use and to carry out a mini options appraisal, enabling the school to make an informed decision on the way forward. The dual use schools were addressed first as they were in most need, two were running very outdated services, but one had a third party arrangement in place. 

As part of the options appraisal process, Hadleigh High School decided to outsource their lettings to the local Leisure Trust which was already managing a new local authority facility a mile away. Abbeycroft supported the school through the negotiating process with the trust and finalising the Service Level Agreement. This new management arrangement removed the competition and enabled programmes and bookings to be centralised. In order to make community use economically viable, the out of date fitness facility on the school site was closed to the public as the leisure centre had a newer facility.

Making it work

The framework offers a range of support from bespoke advice for individual schools, through to group workshops and a suite of generic templates.

“...the customer journey was too long"

Every 3 to 4 months a workshop is run for each group of schools on a key area identified during the audit process, such as health and safety and insurance. Generally these are attended by the Business Manager and also the person operating the facility where relevant. These also provide an opportunity for the schools to share practice and learning with each other.

The Lettings based schools also took part in workshops including reviewing the customer ‘journey’ - from a member of the public making an initial enquiry through the steps it takes to come through the door to use a facility. It soon became clear that the customer journey was too long, but that the Business Managers don’t have time to deal with this time consuming process. As a result, a range of generic template documents were created for the schools to use, including terms and conditions templates (see Resource below) that addressed issues such as child protection, insurance and health and safety. The schools welcomed these documents as they could be easily adapted to meet their own requirements and addressed the common issues and barriers to increasing their community access. These documents were supported by advice given by a number of specialist organisations.

Financial Savings

Abbeycroft provided a range of support to improve financial management including advice regarding Direct Debit Collection, payment terms and provided some options where the school could access preferential rates with suppliers.

Schools were also given an opportunity to buy into a low cost IT solution for community bookings and two schools are now interested in piloting the software.

A pricing benchmarking review was also carried out to see how schools priced their community use, this highlighted inconsistencies across the schools and a lack of understanding on how to structure incentives. As part of business planning tools the schools were provided with a performance management template (see Resource Bank below) which allows them to track income, expenditure and performance data - information that many schools could not easily collate and analyse themselves. Staffing reviews were also offered as well as advice on accounting for utilities. The framework highlighted inconsistencies in how schools calculated fuel bills, maintenance, wear and tear etc. 

All of these tools were aimed at ensuring schools could offer a sustainable community programme and enable them to move out of deficit. Once the schools are making a profit they are then advised to put money aside for a sinking fund to upgrade facilities.
More bespoke engagement also took place on a school by school basis. For example, partnerships were developed with national governing bodies where appropriate, such as the development of a Badminton Centre of Excellence. Advice was also provided regarding setting up a GP referral programme and approaching suppliers as a collective of schools – for example a marketing company offered a low cost preferential rate for the schools as a partnership.

The support from Abbeycroft Leisure was funded by the County Council and District Council, who viewed the investment as a long term solution to reducing the deficit and generating savings, whilst increasing access to and the quality of the services provided.

Marketing

“...marketing tools were used to drive up membership"

Sport England’s market segmentation tool was used to map the local market and then highlight local demand for the programmes and facilities. The Lettings based schools in particular tended to be reactive rather than proactive in their marketing and community use was often hidden within the pages of the school websites. Demographic analysis enabled the schools to provide direct mail outs in order to drive up their membership and branded marketing templates were also developed to enable the schools to create their own brochure and leaflets and advice was given to improve their website.

Project Structure

A steering group was established to guide and direct the framework and to ensure it remained focused on the specified and desired outcomes. 
Represented on the group are Suffolk County Council, Suffolk Sport (County Sports Partnership), Babergh District Council, Abbeycroft Leisure and a Lettings based and Dual Use School from the partnership. The role of the group is to:

  • Monitor and review the performance of the CUSF provider against the contract specification
  • Support the CUSF provider in the engagement and delivery of improvements and joint working initiatives with participating schools
  • Oversee monitoring and evaluation of project outcomes
  • Facilitate and identify wider networking opportunities where they may exist
  • Support and explore any potential funding opportunities to deliver the framework improvements identified

The steering group have played an important role, including providing a check and challenge mechanism for the framework provider. The Chair of the Steering Group is also responsible for feeding back to the SWISS Leadership group (of Headteachers) ensuring that project outcomes and key learning points are disseminated at a high level.

Main Challenges

Many of the staff operating community use are working in isolation and are not leisure professionals. Schools are often dealing with similar problems but did not communicate with each other prior to the pilot programme.

Headteachers want to offer community use but often do not consider it a policy priority, and therefore decision making is a slow process. Solutions therefore need to be simple and easy to introduce as time is often limited.

There are also some attitudinal barriers to community use – such as that everyone who comes on site has to be CRB checked. This is not practical and part of the support framework involved breaking down these barriers and providing strategic and practical solutions.

Another challenge posed, was that schools are legally unable to subsidise the community use operation, therefore the business planning and financial forecasting had to ensure the operation was economically sustainable.

Benefits

Schools have welcomed the mixture of bespoke support, group workshops and template documents. The options appraisal process has provided each school with valuable data to help them plan strategically for their school and community - a ‘one size fits all’ approach would not have worked.

“.. you need to demonstrate how community use can enhance curriculum activity”

Benefits have included the opportunity to outsource the community use at two schools which has increased the hours of operation. All the schools have gained a level of confidence to manage community use and become more financially efficient. The templates have provided practical solutions and the workshops also offered networking opportunities.

From a County Council perspective, they are now saving money rather than subsidising community use as well as improving the health and wellbeing of community users by offering improved access to sport and leisure facilities, supporting their ongoing aim to be the most active county.

Top Tips

  1. Bespoke, flexible approach - what is right for the leisure industry might not be right for a school and each school has its own characteristics
  2. Headteacher buy in is vital - there needs to be support and commitment from the Governors and Senior Leadership Team for community use to be a success.
  3. Sell the benefits– it is important to demonstrate how community use can enhance curriculum based activity, employability and improve the overall health and social wellbeing of students.

Contact details

Warren Smyth – Chief Executive, Abbeycroft Leisure
Email: warren.smyth@acleisure.com

Colin Grogan – Sport, Health and Inclusion Development Manager, Suffolk County Council
Email: colin.grogan@suffolk.gov.uk

www.acleisure.com

School Profile

Numbers: A County Council working with 12 schools (different types) in a rural area of the county Management Model: Various – including direct management and third party management by leisure trust

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