Setting Up A School – Avoid The Most Common Mistakes
A dream opportunity! Leave a legacy!
Setting up a school can be the opportunity of a professional lifetime however many do not realise how challenging it is and the types of mistakes that can be detrimental to a school’s success. We thought we would share some of the typical mistakes that we have seen others make along the way. It is also best to learn from others and then leverage success from the experience of proven experts in the field.
A Lack of Thorough Planning in Advance
Start up school projects often begin with an investor/client having a fairly clear vision of what they are trying to achieve but the initial planning phase must be comprehensive including a testing of assumptions. We strongly encourage all start up projects to complete an extensive research study followed by the creation of a professional financial model. The study can ensure all decisions going forward are based on facts and knowledge about the market, not just assumptions and opinions. The financial model can ensure all considerations are taken into account including start up capital requirements and the ongoing operational costs. The truth is it may take 2-3 years to reach a break even point, if all goes smoothly and no obstacles are encountered.
There are a long list of “Blind Spots” or areas you may not be thinking about when planning the budget. Budget risks when planning a school can have huge impact but here are just a few:
Technology: You will get inundated by commercial suppliers trying to sell you their latest version of everything from laptops to 3D printers, to online subscriptions and Artificial Intelligence. Will it accelerate learning for children? Will it last a long time? Will it become outdated and will it be replaced?
Do you have a well informed plan to fit out the school with internet accessibility. Have you considered CCTV? How do you choose a school management system. What about a learning management system. Finance? Reporting? BYOD? This list could be endless. Be careful this one can burn your budget fast now and into the future.
Air-conditioning and heating systems are judged best by your monthly bill. In the design process create a facility that minimises costs, is efficient and sustainable. Just like with technology, these salespeople will all have the same claims. Work with experts to make a good long term decision. Electricity bills can be a major factor in budget costs.
Human Resources: This will be your largest expense. Salaries can reflect anywhere from 40-80% of the school budget. Be aware that human resources are your most valuable asset to make a school successful but you will also pay for it. Carefully consider this plan and be aware of the financial implications.
Marketing Costs: This can be an endless battle. The more you spend the more students you will get, right? Not really. You really need to consider Return Of Investment (ROI). Make sure a comprehensive marketing plan is very targeted and judge its performance based on leads as well as conversion.
The marketing team must have a thorough process that tracks lead sources and they must be able to report feedback from parents. Have tight controls and track this carefully. Employ a very strong marketing leader and invest wisely.
Decision Making Processes: Who and how are decisions being made in the school? There can often be a tug and war between the business and the academic departments about good budget and spending decisions. In our experience the mistakes can fall on both sides. To generalise, the business side might be looking for the very best prices and ways to cut costs but there are a couple of risks with this. Cheap purchases can sometimes be short lasting. Schools are tough environments on resources and materials must last. It does not help to save money in year one only to have to go and replace that same item in year 2. Also, the business side may not easily be able to determine key priorities.There may be some things that compromises could and should be made on but others can lead to a case of “Penny wise, pound foolish.” On the other hand the academic side might be perceived to be too generous or not cautious with budgets. That is also not necessarily true. Who determined the budget and at what level of detail was quality considered. Repairs and replacement, maintenance, upgrades, all need to be considered. It is essential that a clear budget is determined and that key parties have considered all the factors. A comprehensive and agreed budget will make everyone happy and the school successful.
Contingencies: Sadly, in 2021 this article would be incomplete without naming contingencies or the risks of a major crisis impacting on the school. The budget process may not realistically be able to cater for a global pandemic but in any large business modelling contingencies must be in place for a major financial challenge. Manage the budget closely and always be prepared for a rapid change in direction.
The Wrong Leader
Maybe there is “the perfect leader” but to be honest the profile requirements are so broad and challenging for a start up position that it is almost impossible to achieve perfection. Start ups are certainly not the time for prestigious events, tailored suits and accolades. Start ups include rolled up sleeves, immense challenges and less than glamorous problems to solve. A Head of school whose early priorities are the appointment of a “Personal Assistant” and a “Car with Driver” is a red flag in any start up. You need a strong leader who understands education, has a very strong growth mindset and is not afraid of hard work and out of the box thinking.
Heads of School who have not done a start up also are often not sure where to start. Pioneering requires vision but also an attention to detail, project timelines and awareness of tasks and that have never previously been tackled. To begin with a clean slate might sound exciting but it is incredibly challenging to create a school from scratch.
In our experience it is also difficult to find an educator who understands finance and business modelling well and it is equally difficult to find a business person who understands education, at the levels required to be very successful in a start up. The truth is a solid team needs to be created of “experts” who compliment each other.
Heads of school have an invaluable and key role in marketing however few have extensive experience in the field of marketing, as such, rarely will they understand lead generation, how to convert, SEO on the website, social media funnel strategies etc. The head of school must have some general understanding and be able to support marketing but do not assume they will drive your marketing strategy. That is a specialist skill set.
Do not take this profile, position and decision lightly. Experienced Heads of School are known NOT to apply for start ups, for very good reason. They have seen colleagues face these challenges and they know it is not simple.
A Lack of Systems
Established schools have systems in place to manage school operations efficiently. Such systems need to be of high quality but they also take time to get established and to run smoothly. The challenge with new schools is there are so many things to think about and staff are all coming from such diverse backgrounds and experiences. You are likely to have a high turn over in early years also which will make things difficult.
Inventory System – Everything purchased from furniture to reaching resources and books needs to be tagged and recorded. You would be described what can go missing or forgotten in the first few chaotic years of a new school. (not stolen, or lost, just missing)
Planning then storing copies curriculum and planning – In the first couple of years teachers will be creating curriculum from a blank page. It is imperative that every lesson plan, unit and program is stored electronically, or physically, for the next phase of new teachers and the ongoing sustainability of your curriculum. A Teacher’s work is the school’s IP. Make sure your early investment in teachers and great planning is not lost. It is essential that the exit procedures for teacher include a comprehensive hand over.
Policies, Procedures, Handbooks etc – We have a full complement of every policy and procedure you might ever think of, however, everything needs to be adapted for context. Even for experienced educators this can be overwhelming. We recommend starting with a bank of well proven policies on day one but then continue adapting and documenting them throughout the first year. Don’t bury teachers and administration in the detail of creating this laborious list of systems from scratch, but over time get them to buy in and adapt so that staff value and apply them in a meaningful way. It is very possible that at times throughout the first year you will come across a situation where you don’t have an established policy. Don’t be scared of that. Just deal with it and move on. Contact us if you need assistance with this long list of policies and procedures.
Facility Design Problems
Designing a school, in partnership with a good architect, is fun and rewarding but it is also a demanding task that has high risks. What if you forget something? How do you plan for the future when we all know change is accelerating, especially in education. The spaces that are fashionable, cutting edge and innovative and often become dated and irrelevant in just a short time. The great ideas of a founding Head of School now may not be of the same taste for the next Head of School. We say that the school’s vision must have a life of its own, beyond the tenure of your initial senior management team. We believe in creating spaces that are flexible, adaptable and well positioned to evolve rather than be fixed. Be careful that something one person may describe as “cutting edge” can also mean “ready to be cut” in just a few years time. We have all seen examples of this.
Break Rules: Too often schools are designed and built the same way as they have always been with little thought about the fact that how we teach and the nature of the children we teach, are very different.
“If Rip Van Winkle wakes up tomorrow the only thing he might notice that has never changed is churches and schools.”Greg Parry, GSE CEO
It is very important to begin the design process by accurately articulating the school vision and mission as well as understanding the nature of the students and community the school will serve. This information must then guide the design process.
“A cookie cutter approach to school design just does not work. Just because your previous school has it does not mean it should be in your new school design. Research, analyse then justify all decisions with a solid rationale.”Greg Parry, GSE CEO
Traditions, Artefacts and Icons
We all want to leave a legacy but be cautious about artificially creating traditions and artefacts, in advance. Only time and proven application creates long lasting traditions so be patient and allow space for these to be created. “That wall could be decorated with a great mosaic.” ….. “Maybe we can run a school project for the founding students where they create it”. The strongest traditions are meaningful ones. Create space and time then lets the school community build these.
If you want to learn more about the steps required to set up a school or an international school franchise check out some of our other articles:
GSE set up schools in all areas of the world
CEO and Education Expert Greg Parry
Internationally renowned for his expertise in education leadership, Greg Parry’s vast experience includes leadership of projects for edu-cation institutions throughout Australia, the Middle East, the United States, India, Indonesia, Malaysia and China. Recognised for his numerous contributions in the education arena, Greg has received the Ministers Award for Excellence in School Leadership based on improvements in school performance and a range of successful principal training and leadership development programs, as well as the School of Excellence Award for Industry/School Partnerships and the School of Excellence Award for Technology Innovation. His company GSE (Global Services in Education) has been recognised as having the Best Global Brand in International Education in 2015 and 2016.
Considered one of the premier experts in his profession, Greg has trained teachers and principals throughout the world in areas such as critical thinking, language development and leadership. His expertise in school start up projects, leadership and curriculum development, has made him a sought after authority in these disciplines.
Global Services in Education set up and operate schools in all parts of the world. Governed by a philosophy of global citizenship, every member of the GSE team shares a passion to help shape international education and student achievement through inspiration and collaboration.
Our goal is to meet the highest objectives of every school, teacher, student and parent, with an unwavering dedication to quality education, shared ideals and intercultural perspectives.
– School Management
– Strategic Planning
– Feasibility Studies
– Architectural Conceptual Design
– Interior Design
– ICT Planning
– Staffing & Recruitment
– Curriculum Design
– School Policies
– School Audits & Action Plans
– Training & Development
– Accreditation & Licensing