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Legalese: Schoolwork

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Education projects are among the most fraught – here’s how to avoid disputes, writes Mark Klimt

Along with doctor’s surgeries, schools and other education projects are among the most fraught and problematic of commercial undertakings and frequently the subject of disputes.

Among the issues that can cause problems is the time-sensitive nature of the project, with term or exam dates proving far more immutable deadlines than, say, dates for granting tenants access for fit-out. As well as accommodating a diverse range of activities, reflecting the needs of different interest groups and maintaining communication between the representatives of the client and the project team can prove challenging.

The quality and clarity of client instructions is critical for ensuring that a school project is properly grounded. The head teacher will want his or her views to be reflected in the client brief because they will know better than others on the client side, such as governors or funders, what the pupils’ requirements are.

However, the head teacher is effectively a lay client and will not necessarily know what is achievable, nor how to match aspirations with budget. If this is not clarified during the course of the project, then there is frequently a row when the building is commissioned and its shortcomings, as far as the head teacher is concerned, become manifest.

Very often, the combination of incorporating everyone’s input and inexperience at the client’s interface with the project team will lead to budget and design problems later in the project. A contractor who is minded to do so, will have plenty of opportunities to maximise the impact of altered or uncertain instructions, once that pattern has been established.

Over and above the usual client-risk perils, such as force majeure, adverse weather conditions, statutory undertakings and even antiquities, specific issues are more likely to arise on education projects, entitling the contractor to claim an extension of time and attendant loss and expense.

When policy is formed in stages, with instructions delivered ‘by committee’, this can cause complicated client variation. Out-of-sequence work can also occur where additional pupil needs that require completed work to be revisited are identified. An education client in the current climate, uncertain when further funding might be available, would understandably be all the more anxious for the project to reflect all conceivable needs.

The sensitivity of these projects to time overruns, the vulnerability of the end users, the potential frailties of the client, the usually very tight budget constraints, and heightened health and safety considerations may be peculiar to school and education commissions. However, they merely focus a number of truths universal to construction projects, such as the need for clarity and strong management and for an informed project team to work collaboratively.

Collaboration and clarity were recognised in the PFI Academy programme, with the creation of Framework Agreements, partnering initiatives and other arrangements intended to create designated teams that were familiar with projects of this nature. Although implemented with varying degrees of success, one of the guiding principles was the advantage of establishing a team that knew and accepted the characteristics and foibles of working in education.

The architect’s role is key in getting an education project on to a proper footing. The client should be encouraged to define the initial brief as precisely as possible and to take time in canvassing all interested parties. The client also needs to establish an individual, or at least manageable, representative with the power to approve or reject any refinements to the initial brief. If work is carried out while the school is in use, then the dates of exams or performances need to be identified early so the project team can plan around them.

The project team members should be carefully picked from candidates with experience of this type of work and preferably with an established connection with other members to encourage compromise. School projects are particularly prone to crises such as last-minute additions or repairs with the spectre of the imminent arrival of hundreds of pupils looming large. At times like these, you will want a team that can work together.

Mark Klimt is a partner at Fishburns. He is legal adviser to the RIBA and operates the RIBA Legal Helpline

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