Home DIY skills are not much use to heads when negotiating the minefield of school repairs, reports Anat Arkin
Headteachers do not take on the job because they have a burning desire to oversee the building of a toilet block. But headship can now be as much about managing capital projects and building repairs as it is about improving teaching and learning.
And there are wide variations in how well heads are handling this new responsibility, a recent report from the Audit Commission suggests.
"It can be too easy to assume that personal experience of building works on domestic projects can be translated into the higher-level contracting skills necessary for managing complex contracts on large public buildings," says the commission.
While a large secondary school may well employ a site manager with the technical know-how to oversee building works, and a bursar with contract-management experience, smaller schools are unlikely to have such staff. Yet they are doing better than the Audit Commission implies, according to David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers.
"We've moved on quite a long way in a substantial number of schools," he said. "But it's quite true that this is not a job that headteachers have been trained for, and there's quite a lot more work to do with some heads who simply do not have the personnel to whom they can delegate these responsibilities."
Although some training providers, including the NAHT, run courses covering the management of capital spending, nationally this is a neglected area that needs urgent attention, Mr Hart added.
The Audit Commission report, Improving School Buildings, calls on local education authorities to help schools become better informed and more confident in handling property issues.
However, it highlights weaknesses in the quality of local authority property services departments. Property services were judged excellent in only three authorities, including Shropshire. Inspectors said it was "the level of customer focus" that set it apart.
Gill Eatough, head of Lacon Childe comprehensive in Kidderminster - which comes under Shropshire LEA despite being in Worcestershire - found herself at the receiving end of this customer focus when the school became a specialist sports college in 2001.
"The school provides the only facilities for sports and recreation in this very rural community so I wanted to build a top-notch, health and fitness suite," she said.
"I approached property services and they designed it and worked with me every step of the way."
Property services team members visited regularly, checking on the building quality and keeping on the subcontractors' backs. While all that was going on, Dr Eatough secured extra funding to give the school's "grotty, horrible 1950s" changing rooms a facelift.
Other equally ambitious building projects followed when pupil numbers shot up from 450 to 550, and again Dr Eatough chose to work with the LEA because it was willing to listen to what the school wanted.
The authority does not provide heads with formal training in property skills. Instead, it helps schools translate their building requirements into specifications that can be set out in contract tenders. There is no charge for this service.
"We are not trying to turn headteachers into property professionals," said Shropshire's assistant director of education Robin Durham. "But we are trying to turn them into intelligent clients who have sufficient knowledge to know when they don't have the answers and where they can go for advice when they need professional expertise."
"Improving School Buildings", see www.audit-commission.gov.uk
SECRET LIES IN THE PLANNING
A recent visitor to Hilton Lane primary school in Salford told headteacher Stevie Marsh how lucky she was to work in a new building.
The school was, in fact, built in the early 1960s and a few years ago was looking down at heel. The woodwork was rotting and the flat roof was fast approaching its sell-by date. The fact that the school had not been painted for 20 years did not help.
Things began to change as soon as the school took control of its budget.
"We decided that it was important to plan for our building improvement as well as for our curriculum," said Ms Marsh. "So every year, just as we audit and evaluate the curriculum delivery and standards, we audit and evaluate the building."
Working with Salford education authority and using both centrally-held and delegated funding, Hilton Lane was gradually transformed.
Money from the New Deal for Schools programme paid for rewiring and roof repairs, with the school contributing 15 per cent of costs. External doors and window frames are now being replaced.
With only 240 pupils on roll, the school is too small to employ a site manager or bursar. As the Audit Commission report points out, the key to its success lies in the way the headteacher and governors plan to meet building needs.
"If you plan where you want to get to and move in little steps, you can do it in a building like ours and with the support I've had," said Mrs Marsh.
"But perhaps not everyone is that fortunate."