So, You Want to Build a New School?
Ten Things to Bear in Mind When Starting Out on a BSF Project
Nailsea School and Independent Thinking 2009
One: Start from a clear vision of what learning should be like rather than what it currently is like in your school
Do have a clear vision for 21st Century learning which is owned by all. Make the time to consult and involve all stakeholders (staff, students, governors, parents community, Local Authority). It pays dividends in the long run.
Don’t let the 19th Century model of education restrict your imagination, and DON’T think of structures, think of activities!
Use the stimulus provided by the project to broaden your school’s thinking. Start from blue (or pink) skies and if you can’t think it, dream it. The further you push the boundaries at this stage the more chance you have of making a real difference.
Choosing representatives from all interested parties and involving them in this ‘visioning process’ will result in a robust vision that has support from most (it will never be all!) sectors of the school community. This then becomes the ‘backbone’ for driving your vision through.
Two: Remember who you are doing this for Your current students and the thousands of students in the future deserve the very best learning environment, one which reflects the value of an excellent education.
There are many more reasons to ‘play safe’ than there are to be adventurous, but be brave. You can’t afford to let them down.
Do have the courage to keep your learning vision at the heart of every decision you make, or that you allow others to make.
Don’t let the bean counters or the nay-sayers take over.
It is important to remember that architects, quantity surveyors, local authority project managers and the likes are not educators. You will be confronted with ‘BB98’ and many other restrictive formulae for building schools. Remember this is not legislation, it is guidance. There will be many voices telling you what you can’t do. Hold your nerve. You are the lead professional in terms of education. It is vital that you challenge decisions and justify all decisions from an educational perspective. This is particularly true of the ICT. Do not be fobbed off with ‘techno speak’, or seduced by ‘kit’, terabytes or megahertz. Keep ICT provision grounded in the impact it will have on learning (and it doesn’t have one, don’t bother).
Three: Build capacity within your leadership team at an early stage
Do make time to look after yourself and the senior team, adjust responsibilities and build capacity to absorb the extra workload. Assign mentors to those staff who are most heavily involved in the design process, have ‘away days’ to reconnect with each other and the purposes of the project.
Don’t let the pressures of a build project overwhelm you or assume that the SLT structure can stay the same. Running a school and building a school are two very different tasks.
For the duration of the project you will be running two schools. You will spend twice as long as you expect to on the project (for a ‘One School Pathfinder’ expect three to four working days per week for the design and build phase). This is a vital piece of the jigsaw. If things stay the same, something will break. Demand that the local authority supports the project by capacity building. This will entail between 1.5 and 2 additional members of the senior team.
The pressure of relentless meetings, deadlines and workshops could mean that you lose valuable communications within the Senior Team and the rest of the staff. Take time out to re-focus minds, re-establish communications, re-charge batteries and fire up creativity. Remember, if your level of visibility drops around the school, staff and students will get nervous and their perception of how things are going will be distorted.
Four: Expect to be out of your comfort zone
Do get used to the feeling of being ‘comfortable with feeling uncomfortable’.
Don’t feel like you have to know all the answers, and don’t assume that everyone knows what they are doing!
When it feels like there is no light at the end of the tunnel, staff and governors are getting cold feet and people start to question the direction of travel, brave leadership is needed. Return to the original vision, test decisions against the vision and, if they stand up, carry on with courage (and bloody-minded determination).
The most dangerous questions are the ones you don’t ask. At the start of the project get used to demanding explanations and details of the consequences of decisions that are being made. Remind the experts in their specific fields that you don’t know what they assume everyone knows – but they don’t know how to run a successful school with over 1500 teenagers in it.
Five: Ask the right questions
Do ask ‘What do I want the ICT to do?’; ‘What experiences do I want students to have?’; ‘What values do we hold dear, and how does this affect my practice?’; ‘What should learning be like in an ideal world?
Don’t ask yourself ‘What kind of ICT do I want?’; ‘What sort of building do I want?’; ‘What do others have?’; ‘What do we do now?’
Don’t accept ‘off the shelf’ solutions if they are not right for your context.
Do be creative and innovative, and keep going in the face of comments like ‘It can’t be done’, ‘It’s too expensive’, ‘We just don’t do it like that’.
You will be bombarded by ICT firms who will preach education but simply want to sell you the latest gadget or something they have stockpiled in bulk. Resist the lure of shiny toys or the latest gimmick and focus on what it can do for learners - insist that ICT companies offer mechanisms to deliver your vision for learning in the bidding process. You will be told what you will have to do and what your vision should be. You will be amazed at the lack of educational understanding (or perhaps you won’t!).
The same is true of the buildings and structures. Don’t copy what others have done, adapt the best to your own context, learn from the mistakes of others. Do not accept “you can’t............” Anything can be done – the issues are costs and consequences. These may not be as bad as you are at first told. Push the boundaries!
Six: Keep the thinking joined up!
It is easy to separate the ICT from the building and the educational vision. Different subcontractors talk different languages, and have different approaches. Your role is to make sure that everyone is talking your educational vision using your language.
Do see ICT as a powerful agent of change with the ability to transform learning and engage and facilitate the change management process.
Don’t see the ICT aspect as just hardware and software, wiring and RJ45s (and if you don’t know what an RJ45 is you will soon!)
The biggest ‘fear factor’ will be the ICT for many of your staff. The most difficult to get right is the ICT component, ensuring it is effectively integrated into both admin and teaching and learning. Have a clear concept of how you will use this to improve the learning experience. This may not just be the use of ICT in teaching. You can change working practices by introducing technological solutions to registration, planning and communications. Use the ICT training budget to also train for change in teaching and learning pedagogy like we did with Independent Thinking.
Seven: Use the stimulus of the project to raise standards NOW
It is not the new building that will raise standards; it is the change in working practices. This can start at the beginning of the project, before any sod is cut. If you haven’t made progress by the time you move into the new building it may be too late.
Do see it as a chance to bring a sharp focus to learning and standards, to grab the moral imperative and drive through positive changes
Don’t see the project as additional and separate from the ‘day job’.
In the years prior to moving in, redesign the curriculum to maximise the new resources you will have. Focus on the vision for learning that you have developed and use the process to bring all staff on board for the journey. Remember that not everyone will want to come with you. This is OK. Let them go with good grace and dignity.
Mark the change to working practices in the new school with as many indicators as you can. Change the uniform, adapt the school day timings, allow things that were previously banned (e.g. mobile phones) and ban things that were previously allowed (e.g. eating in corridors).
Eight: Keep lines of communication going
Do get key messages out to staff and students on a regular basis to involve them in the process. Communication lines need to be crystal clear.
Don’t keep developments to yourself, in an attempt to protect the staff and students from good or bad moments.
Regular drop in sessions, ‘meet the Head’ opportunities and stakeholder community events mean that there will a shared sense of ownership. It is very easy, however, to get so involved in the meeting cycle that Senior Leadership presence around school is compromised, with the staff feeling neglected. If the Senior team looks after each other, there should be plenty of presence and energy to go around.
Nine: Appreciate the human element
Remember that change entails anxiety, fear, anger and irrationality on behalf of staff, students, parents and governors.
Do listen, talk to and reassure your staff.
Don’t assume that what they say they are worried about is what they are really afraid of. The biggest fear they will have is about the change in working practices. This will be expressed as a concerns about other issues e.g. toilets, workload and where their room will be in the new building.
Ten: Enjoy the ride
To be chosen to lead a project on this scale is a great honour and privilege as well as a great responsibility. You will deal with, in equal measure, jealousy, sympathy and appreciation from fellow colleagues in other schools, especially amongst headteachers! But if you get it right, the first week in your new school will be the best you will ever have.
What Next: Want to learn more?
If you have found this article useful and want to learn more before you start your own BSF journey (or want to get your journey back on track) then please come and see us.
We are running a series of visits over the coming months in partnership with Independent Thinking where you can look around our new school, meet key people involved in the project and ask all those questions you daren’t ask your own team for fear of looking stupid. Places are limited so to book call 0709 239 9617 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
We look forward to showing you around our wonderful new school soon.