If you want a plumber you would look for someone who is a member of a trade association so that you have some checks and guarantees of workmanship. If you are looking for an educational consultant, you should consult the directory of the Society of Educational Consultants.
This is the view of Bill Tagg the society's secretary who says: "Schools are increasingly having to hire in consultants on the open market so we wanted to provide them with a form of quality assurance. Anyone applying for membership of the SEC must provide a reference. And we operate a strict code of conduct. "
That code includes giving balanced advice, offering a professional service which includes initial advice, providing an estimate and having the expertise and support to deliver the service required, whether it is staff training, inspection or consultation.
The directory goes out free to grant-maintained, independent and state schools, as well as local authorities, libraries and British Council offices. With schools increasingly in charge of their own budgets and with local authorities driven to cut back their own professional services, education consultancy, advisory and inspection services are dependent onfreelances.
"Many of our members are professional people who have left their local authorities and who have set up as freelance consultants often working for their former employers or for the schools they were responsible for," says Mr Tagg.
The directory, which now has its own web site on the Internet, contains entries of around 120 consultants - everything from early years and special educational needs to management consultants, health and safety experts, staff training and even Office for Standards in Education inspectors. While the idea of being able to pick your own dream inspection team on the Internet may appeal to those of us with a quirky sense of humour, the inclusion of OFSTED inspectors is not as strange as it appears. Mr Tagg explains: "A lot of our members are inspectors. Inspecting would be a very exacting job if that's all you did. Being an OFSTED inspector is just part of a portfolio of other consultancy skills which they offer to schools."
The directory contains some valuable tips on choosing aconsultant: * Don't be diffident. Be business-like, as you would be with any fellow professional.
* If you are confident about what you want, arrangements could be made in writing.
* JYou will need to phone or arrange a face-to-face meeting to sort out the final specification for the work; exploring how the consultant would approach the task and to discuss the basis of the fee; exploring the consultants relevant experience and track record; selecting the best from the shortlist Once you have chosen someone to work for you, you need to make the most of them. Take the time to establish a clear and specific written brief. Arrange regular monitoring meetings and review the brief if plans change. Make any political agendas clear to the consultant from the outset.
Decide how you will communicate - by fax, hard copy, e-mail or computer disc - and how soon you can expect to receive the report. If you are using information technology, ensure your computer systems are compatible.
Plan how you want to feed the work of your consultant into existing management structures. Do you want him or her to attend management team meetings or make presentations to staff?
And finally, the SEC directory contains the following gem of advice. "It is surprising how few clients or consultants sit down to talk to each other about the processes which make a consultancy project work." Don't say you haven't been warned.
* Society of Education Consultants, Greta Russell, 256 LongfellowRoad, Coventry, CV2 5HJ.Tel: 01203 442701.The Society's Web site is: http:www.rmplc.co.ukeduwebsitesconsult.