Given the importance of school work, contractors need to dedicate much more thought to getting education experts and construction experts to work together

December’s Building Schools Exhibition & Conference in Abu Dhabi drew together experts from the built environment and education worlds – and never was the gulf between them so visible. In the exhibition hall there were representatives of all those involved in UK school building: architects, contractors and education consultants. Unfortunately, few were on the same stand! The groups have long been suspicious of each other – and it seems to me there’s a long way to go before that is resolved.

My view is that this suspicion is rooted in a lack of understanding of the other’s role in the process of creating learning environments. I came across this division when I was establishing a “joined up” education project management team in my current company. The educationalists tended to think the project managers lacked vision, the architects were unimaginative or unrealistic and the contractors regarded schools as office buildings for children. The educationalists were seen as lacking common sense. It took many projects, many meetings, and a lot of joint effort to get the parties to work together, but this difficulty in understanding the strengths of each profession involved in the wider Building Schools arena is a continuing struggle.

In this world the contractor is king. Some employ their own educationalists; others use education consultants they can rely on. Many nominate education directors from within their ranks whose only experience of working in schools is that they once attended one themselves. It’s no surprise, then, when their presentations fall on sceptical ears, or their bids fail to make the grade.

Contractors wouldn’t dream of using a builder or an architect to speak to health consultants when bidding to deliver medical facilities. Why rely on them when finalising a bid or pitching to headteachers and council personnel for the contract for a multimillion pound school? Communicating in the right way and having a real understanding of the issues is paramount to ensuring success in what is actually a small market. Public and private sector speak a different language. It has taken much discussion and leadership training in my own company to achieve understanding.

Having said all that, I do have to admit that the worst faux pas I witnessed in Abu Dhabi were made by my fellow educationalists who should have had known better. Jokes about having to speak slowly to contractors and comments from the platform about architects who design schools for the past, rather than the future, aren’t helpful. Aren’t these conferences designed to showcase the best of British talent, rather than draw attention to its shortcomings?

Contractors wouldn’t dream of using a builder or architect to speak to health consultants when bidding for medical facilities. Why rely on them when pitching to head teachers?

Fortunately the day was saved by a threefold presentation that showed just how to achieve the best result. The design for a school in Dubai was presented by three team members: an educationalist who talked about working with his sponsor to identify what this school needed to achieve for its learners, and the education vision and curriculum required to deliver it; the sponsor himself, who spoke of the collaborative meetings that served to progress this vision and clarify his thoughts; and finally the architect who showed how he had captured this ethos and vision in a spectacular design leading to a functional, innovative building.

By the end of the presentation all three were referring back and forward to the work they had done with one another – a true partnering and group effort based on mutual respect and understanding – building the bridge that will ensure that this particular school will endure, succeed and provide Dubai with the young people it needs to sustain its future for years to come. This was a truly joined-up design team that recognised differing skills, expertise and ways of looking at things.

So let’s get a move on and get this show on the road! After all, as so many people have said, education is about the only show in town. This is not just about a new building containing a collection of classrooms strung together at random with no central vision or purpose that ends up being knocked down 11 years after it has been built. It is an investment in learning, in new technologies, in new ways of doing things and in new, flexible facilities that will serve their community for generations to come.

Here in Britain we have just the expertise required to deliver that investment. This is an opportunity not to be missed, to use our combined expertise to truly improve the life chances of thousands of learners, children and adults, not just here in Britain, but worldwide.

See you at the February conference!