Mark Dolling lays solid foundations with project management advice

When extending your school it’s important to speak to the right people. Mark Dolling, operations director at Carillion Regions and Communities, looks at how to deliver a successful school building project and offers some key planning advice along the way

Planning a new school or extension is, undoubtedly, an exciting time in a school’s life – but it’s also a big responsibility. Do it right and you will be spending public money wisely, creating environments that will underpin improved attainment and facilitating increased community use. Get it wrong and you’ll face accusations of being wasteful, creating something that is not fit for purpose and potentially disrupt school life and pupil progress. What steps, therefore, can you take to maximise your chance of success?

Think about storage, location of toilets, circulation routes and the relationship with outside spaces

Write a good brief

The quality of the end product will largely be determined by the quality of information you put in at the start of the process. Really think about what your objectives are and articulate them clearly. How many classrooms? What size? How will teachers and children use technology? Think about storage, location of toilets, circulation routes and the relationship with outside spaces. There’s lots of great guidance on the internet – look at the DfE’s Building Bulletin 103 and other information on the EFA website.

Stakeholders

Identify who your key stakeholders are and listen to them; explain what you are trying to achieve and seek their views. Teachers, support staff, governors, parents and the wider community will all have an opinion. Gather up this intelligence and use it to write your brief. Don’t forget to talk to the children – yes they will probably always ask for a swimming pool but they will also offer invaluable insights into their ‘user experience’

Speak to your peers and seek their views

 Getting the right team

It’s very useful to have a look at new schools or projects undertaken locally. Do you like the design? Speak to your peers and seek their views. Did they rate the architect? Did the design fully meet the commissioning school’s objectives?

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As client you will sit at the centre of the project but be honest with yourself about your capability and capacity. Overseeing a major building project is not something you can tag on to your already busy day job without other priorities being disrupted. Get a team with experience – design quality matters and good design need not be expensive. An experienced project manager and cost consultant are essential. They will manage the process from start to finish, working collaboratively with the design team and liaising with the planning authority and other stakeholders on your behalf.

People make successful projects

It’s a cliché, but project management is a people business. Yes there are processes, structures, risk plans and governance but it will all fall down without effective communication. Be explicit about what you want and create a positive culture built on teamwork, professional respect and challenging one another.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions and seek clarification at all key milestones. Find a team that you are going to be happy working with – if you are building a new school it’ll probably be the best part of a year in development and then the same again on site. Above all, enjoy it. Get it right and it’s incredibly rewarding – you will have made a leading contribution to creating a public asset that will serve your community for 50 years or more. You’ll glow with pride!

About the author
Mark Dolling has nearly 25 years’ experience in the school build sector. Formerly capital programme director at Milton Keynes Council, he led one of the biggest and most successful school build programmes in the country, overseeing the investment of more than £500m and delivering in excess of 40 new schools and major extension projects. He has advised the Department for Education and RIBA and was a board member of the British Council of School Environments. He has spoken and written about school building in the UK and internationally.

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