Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

A taxing inheritance

Outsourcing school services isn't new but it is increasingly common. And with the growth in PFI, it's more likely than ever that school leaders will inherit contracts negotiated by their predecessors. A new SHA publication advises school leaders on the opportunities and pitfalls of facilities management. Angela Spencer gives the highlights.

Outsourcing has been going on in some secondary schools for up to 15 years. Cleaning, catering, grounds maintenance, security, even ICT repairs are all available to schools for the right price by private contractors.

But the rise in the number of PFI projects, and the government's infatuation with public-private partnerships, means that school leaders are more likely than ever to work with private companies on a total facilities management (FM) contract at some point in their career.

And while most have the inherent skills required to do the job - good interpersonal communication and the ability to multi-task, be practical, act quickly and manage the managers - FM agreements can still uncover unexpected minefields.

Two heads with personal experience of FM at PFI schools in Wiltshire and outer London have put together a 'how to' guide for SHA members setting out the key principles for success.

In the publication Facilities Management for Schools: Getting the best out of contracted services, authors Malcolm Trobe and Malcolm Noble maintain that, while there is no definitive right or wrong way to proceed, there are a number of elements common to successful operations.

These are:

  • sharing of expectations between the contractor and school

  • a written down set of protocols and systems

  • regular meetings

  • a good system for recording and agreeing decisions taken at meetings through minutes or file notes

  • a good system for referring back to the decisions

  • identifying potentially difficult areas in advance and developing a solution before the issue becomes a problem

  • good knowledge of the requirements of the contract

  • flexibility on both sides to deal with problems when they arise

  • an honest and open relationship between the school and the contractor

Devil in the detail

However the single most important piece of advice the authors give is to pay attention to detail right from the outset.

"The carpenter's old adage 'measure twice, cut once' never held more true," says Malcolm Trobe. "School leaders should make sure they get the contract right in the first instance because getting out of it if they miss something can be very costly and time consuming.

"It's not easy because there's so much to think of, but time spent at the beginning talking to other schools about the pros and cons of individual FM contracts is worth its weight in gold."

Another vital piece of advice is to leave any 'us and them' preconceptions at the negotiating door.

Malcolm Noble says: "The most successful FM contracts are those where all parties start out by agreeing that they all keep the best interests of the school at heart and that they will be flexible in order to secure positive results. Stained and difficult relationships invariably lead to operational problems."

Health and safety

Health and safety is a case in point. The authors say that while a statement of the health and safety responsibilities of both parties must be made and accepted by all, the final responsibility for students and members of the school lies with the head and governing body.

The school must therefore have the final say as to whether a working practice, area or activity is safe.

"In this area, as with many others, school leaders should not allow themselves only to be consulted. They should put themselves firmly in the driving seat," says Malcolm Noble.

The authors promote the idea of training for school leaders in all aspects of contract negotiation and management.

While it's not necessary for them to have specialist expertise, they must have an understanding of the key issues and an appreciation of when it is appropriate to seek professional guidance.

"PFI and total facilities management is changing the role of school leaders," concludes Malcolm Noble. "Today's schools must operate on business lines. There is no other way.

"Good informal relationships can only develop out of robust formal systems. When they do, the resulting well-managed services can reduce heads' day-to-day involvement on the premises and eliminate some of the frustrations of working in inadequately maintained premises."

The book Facilities Management for Schools: Getting the best out of contracted services, is being sent to all SHA members as part of the March mailing.

Extra copies are available for £12 from the SHA Publications Office on 0116 299 1122 or publications@sha.org.uk

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