Six steps to solid contracts

Mia Hunt gleans expert tips on how to ensure any agreements you make with service providers are worth the paper they’re written on
10th March 2017, 12:00am
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Six steps to solid contracts

The primary role of a headteacher as a school figurehead, manager of staff and continual raiser of standards hasn’t changed much over the years. But what is different about the job today compared with even a decade or so ago is that it increasingly involves - against the backdrop of dwindling resources - additional, less familiar duties.

The management of contracts is one such duty that has added to headteachers’ loads, and one that, if dealt with incorrectly, could result in serious consequences. Service contracts - whether for IT maintenance, cleaning, landscaping or catering - tend to be the most complicated and there are a number of pitfalls that headteachers should be aware of, and avoid, if they are to ensure they get the best service for their schools, and at the right price.

Hans van Mourik Broekman, principal at Liverpool College, is all too aware of the pressure that often complex contracts can put on headteachers, but he is also aware that he is in a fortunate position: his board of governors happens to include experienced experts in the field of law.

These experts make up what he calls the school’s Fear Committee. No contract, no matter how small, is entered into formally without first being scrutinised by its members. He recognises that he is fortunate to have this resource and that many other headteachers have no such support.

“It’s a sobering thought that I, as the head of an academy and therefore de facto chief executive, have the option to outsource contract handling,” says Van Mourik Broekman.

“I absolutely would not entertain any contract without it first being seen by many eyes in what is a very rigorous process.

“Many are not in a position to do that but I would advise seeking legal advice. That is extremely important.”

Stephen Munday, chief executive of the Comberton Academy Trust, in Cambridge, agrees. “It is serious territory and you need people who have detailed knowledge to help you, rather than having to do it yourself when you don’t have the capacity or expertise.”

With that in mind, Matthew Wolton, a partner at professional services firm Knights 1759, who specialises in contract law for schools, sets out the six tips he believes headteachers should follow to walk a safe path through the minefield that is contract law.

A contract can exist without paper (but it shouldn’t)

As soon as someone starts providing goods or services to another party in return for payment, there is a contractual relationship, regardless of whether paperwork has been signed, says Wolton. “It is always best for contracts to be well written and signed by the parties as this creates more clarity about what the contractual terms are,” he says.

If there are no written terms then, in a dispute, a court would have to decide what the terms were, which is a complicated process.

“If a school has a dispute about something and there is no written contract, the likelihood is that it’s going to take a long time to resolve, it’s going to cost a lot of money in legal advice and there’s no certainty about the outcome,” Wolton adds.

Dual sight

Wolton advises headteachers to think of a contract as consisting of two parts - the legal framework and the practical specification. As such, the document should be read by someone who understands what is to be provided: if the contract is for cleaning, ensure it is read by the facilities manager.

“Be sure you’re getting what you expect and what you need,” says Wolton. “It sounds obvious but, too many times, contracts are concluded by a business manager or lawyer without involving the end user. In this case you can end up with an excellent contract but for the wrong thing.”

Don’t assume

Assumptions can often be made about what the contracted service will consist of, says Wolton.

“This can frequently unravel in practice, with the school expecting the provider to do more than the provider was planning to do,” he explains

Exactly what is being provided should be set out clearly in the contract and, furthermore, to ensure that the school receives the level of service it was expecting, key performance indicators should be set so that the provider is tied in to hitting minimum standards.

As Wolton explains: “If they don’t then there will be consequences - usually the school can withhold some of the payment or has the ability to terminate the contract.”


Be clear on who can amend the contract or agree additional orders, and who the provider should take instructions from.

This should include the headteacher but also, according to Wolton, include the business manager, chair of governors and other relevant stakeholders.

“What schools should avoid is the potential for a more junior member of staff to inadvertently make changes without understanding the consequences,” he says.

“A classic example of this is where a teacher asks the provider to stop doing something that is disturbing his or her lesson - you don’t want this to constitute a formal instruction from the school because it could have practical and financial consequences.”

The curse of the ever-rolling contract

One of the traps that schools can fall into is not understanding how long a contract will run for or how it can be ended.

Rolling contracts, whereby a two-year agreement will automatically renew for another two years if action has not been taken to end it by a certain date, are common at schools but rare in any other organisation or business.

“Unfortunately, it is very common for schools to unwittingly extend the term of a contract and end up tied in to something they were expecting to have ended,” says Wolton.

“They should take the position that if they want to extend the term of the contract, it should be a decision that both parties proactively agree.”

Time to terminate

An obvious one perhaps, but schools should have the right to terminate the contract in the appropriate circumstances, including for poor performance or if the provider is taken over by an unsuitable third party.

In conclusion, managing contracts can be arduous but it needn’t be a cause of stress.

A clear, well-written contract is worth its weight in gold. And the most important thing for headteachers is to share the burden with those with the know-how.

Mia Hunt is a freelance writer

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