Should schools use consultants?


The use of private consultants by schools using taxpayers' money is often controversial. But our headteacher diarist asks whether it is fair to expect schools to have in-house expertise to cover every possible challenge?

Recently I have been involved in discussions with the local planning authority about a new building at our school. It has been my first direct involvement in a planning application and all that this entails.

To be honest, the whole process has been far more time-consuming and stressful than I had anticipated. I remember sitting in a meeting when planning was first discussed and assuming that it would just "happen" and that we would get our consent in plenty of time.

A few weeks passed before I happened to enquire about the status of the planning application. As I understood the process, the planning authority's consultation would now have been completed and so consent should be forthcoming very shortly. 

In fact, there seemed to be a bit of a delay but I was assured that, even with this, the consent would be received by the middle of November, which would still leave us plenty of time to sort out the tenders and commence the build this month.

By the time I next raised the issue of planning, time was getting tight. In addition, it became clear that all was not running quite as smoothly as I had been led to believe. 

While there was no doubt that the school would ultimately get the consent, it became apparent there were a number of ancillary issues surrounding the application and that resolving these was causing a delay in the planning authority granting consent. Dealing with these unanticipated issues resulted in a stressful few days before term ended for Christmas.

In retrospect, I realise that I was very naive in the first place in assuming that everything would just "happen". For a major project such as a new building, a typical school simply does not have the in-house expertise to deal with all the issues that are likely to arise.

Even if a school is lucky enough to have someone with the necessary expertise on its governing body, that person may not be in a position to devote sufficient time to the project, given that they would no doubt be expected to give their time for free. It may be that the best solution in the end is to employ a consultant. However, for us, and I suspect most schools in a similar position, employing an external consultant is usually not considered at the outset of a project on cost grounds.

If a company were undertaking a large-scale development, it is unlikely that it would manage the planning application itself. It would employ a consultant who would have the experience to know how to handle the process and when to pick up the phone to move things along. In dealing with local authorities on planning issues and other matters, it is, almost invariably, a case of making sure that one is talking to the right people at the right time to ensure that matters proceed in a timely fashion.

Schools are in many ways the equivalent of companies, and with the advent of academies, many will, in fact, become companies. 

While not advocating that schools should be run like companies, I do think that on occasions it would benefit schools to present a more "corporate" face to the outside world when dealing with things such as planning. This is what the other party is used to dealing with and is comfortable with.

Headteachers perhaps have to accept that they do not have a sufficient depth of expertise to call upon to cover all eventualities and that there will be times when it makes sense (financial as well as practical) to "buy-in" the expertise.

I'm off now to check the local authority website to see if our consent has finally come through...

  • Diary of a headteacher is written anonymously and in rotation by three practising headteachers from schools across the country.


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