Planning a new library or IT system?

So, your school has decided the time has come to install a new library or that it can't delay overhauling its ageing IT system any longer. The funding is available - but where do you actually start?

For schools that don’t have expertise in setting up IT or construction projects, the Better Schools Project could be worth talking to. The company aims to help schools achieve better deals when negotiating on a range of building and refurbishing projects, from setting up Learning Resource Centres to buying furniture and agreeing IT and maintenance contracts. It can also help guide schools through the maze of contractual agreements and even project manage the whole programme.

Better Schools Project was set up by directors Doug Haines and Reece Haines-Aubert. Doug Haines, who has a background as a head of department in a secondary school and in investment banking, realised that many schools struggled to set up contracts with the different suppliers they need to use, agreeing contracts that don't really work for them and sometimes being overcharged in the process.

These problems become even more pronounced when new projects are involved, such as creating a library or replacing a crumbling building. Schools simply don't have the contacts they need or the staff to project manage the work, Haines says.

Talking to suppliers, he realised that the companies providing the services also found difficulties in working with schools. "There are many suppliers who can give schools a good deal and do great work for them, but the problem they had was in getting schools to know they exist," Haines explains.

The idea for the Better Schools Project was borne, aiming to bring schools together with the right suppliers and to help schools through the tricky contractual process - as well as getting a better deal for the work. Typically, Better Schools Projects says it can help shave up to 25% off the price of schools' contracts as well as managing processes that many schools are simply not equipped to deal with.

Schools are not charged for its services, but the company asks its suppliers to pay it a commission for the work they undertake for the schools it is working with. "We help schools to make sure that they have the right supplier. For suppliers, we find work that we know they are equipped to provide. Schools know that the suppliers we recommend can be vouched for, which can be a huge issue when you’re dealing with large contracts. Schools can’t afford to get it wrong."

Better Schools Project works with some 300 schools around the country, supporting projects in construction, maintenance, IT, furniture and catering. In short, anything from installing new windows to buying pens and paper.

It has also created learning resource centres from scratch for a number of schools. "Typically the school will come to us with a space they want to turn into a library or learning resource centre. We talk to them to find out what they want to achieve and this may involve speaking with a number of stakeholders, for example the teaching staff, school management and the children themselves, to find out what they really want to achieve."

Better Schools Project can help with running the tendering process if required to as well establishing the guidelines and specifications for projects. Haines says, "We give the schools clarity over what is being offered and what they can get for the budget available, so we want the best result for the least amount of money for the school."

Once they are agreed on what is needed, Better Schools Project will bring in selected suppliers to look at the space and suggest how best to use it and what kinds of furniture would work in that area; so the schools will have two or three different ideas to work from. IT contracts might also be part of the project.

Stage two will involve negotiating time scales and lead times and, once everyone is happy with the outcomes, the suppliers and contractors will be booked in. "There needs to be a decent amount of lead time, for example to order in the furniture which can take anything from four to 12 weeks," says Haines. "A library project can take a chunk of time to set up so we’d look at doing that kind of work over the summer."

Better Schools' involvement can vary with each project. "Schools we work with may already have a process set up and suppliers in place. They may simply want an additional supplier to do x, which we can help with. Or we can come in at the start of the process and bring in all the suppliers for that project."

Having a company on board that knows how to manage building projects can help schools avoid problematic and expensive mistakes because they often don't have the expertise to manage this kind of work.

The biggest mistake that schools can make going into a project is to not fully think through the outcomes, Haines warns. "For a construction or maintenance project, you need to begin with some kind of survey or bring in an architect to establish where you are and what needs improving. What schools then often forget to do is to run an internal process where you get everyone's opinion." If it's just the head teacher saying, 'This is what we are going to do', it can cause problems further down the line.

It's easy to overlook small things that aren't obvious. Will the library have a jungle theme, for example, or will it be needed as another classroom? Will you want reading alcoves, or is the focus the IT resources? Brainstorming sessions where everyone is involved can help clarify what is really needed.

With IT, setting up the hardware is a fairly simple job but agreeing the ongoing support contracts are where problems can arise. In fact, says Haines, invariably "most schools end up in support contracts that aren't fit for what they want, especially in primary schools that need a lot of support but don't have the kinds of budgets that secondary schools have".

The answer? To be more strategic and again, to have a plan for what you need before approaching suppliers. "Once the system is set up in a good way, you should only need light touch support, some of which can be done remotely; or there are a lot of good support companies that will give you the support you need at a fairly low cost," he adds.

When schools begin a project, there will be a lot of decisions to make further down the line which is why it is so important to know what you want from the start, warnes Haines. "You will get a variety of quotes and if you don't have a clear idea of what you want, what the decision-making process is and what is the final outcome, you may not get what you actually want or need from the project."

Contact details:

The Better Schools Project
Tel: 0845 054 2925

Planning a new library or IT system?
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