A project to be proud of

Written by: HTU | Published:

In the March edition of Headteacher Update, Tom Donohoe described his school’s attempt to raise money for a new music, dance and drama room. Here, he tells us what they did next and talks us through the highs and lows of the project

Eight years ago, I was appointed as headteacher at Anton Junior School in Andover, Hampshire. I inherited thrilling plans from the previous head to build a music, dance and drama room that he had shared with an excited staffroom just before he left. Unfortunately, I did not inherit the £150,000 needed to build the project. It was left to me to explain the costs of the project and the fact that we were unlikely to achieve this build within the next few years, as we were a bit short of the amount needed – about £150,000 short to be precise.

At this time, the school was categorised by the local authority as “in need of improvement”, so I had other priorities to keep me occupied in those early years. I did, however, keep those plans in the back of my mind and having had a successful Ofsted inspection in 2009, we decided that the time was right to try to make the dream a reality.

At the first staff meeting of the academic year in September 2009, I explained to the staff the aim and talked them through the journey we were going to have to follow in order to achieve the desired outcome. At this point we still had no funding to put towards the build, but we told staff that the leadership team were prepared to make it a major focus and put in the time to raise the required revenue through a mixture of grant finding and fundraising events. I was delighted with the staff’s reaction – they shared our excitement and we had 100 per cent buy-in. We shared with them our initial plans for fundraising and they then came up with some additional ideas, meaning we quite quickly accumulated a really good list.

Once we had the staff on board, the next step was to get the support of the whole school community. At the start of each academic year we have a meeting for parents in each of our four year groups where we outline expectations, highlight key events, and provide information about the residential trip. At the end of each of these meetings we shared our vision for our fundraising year and asked for parents’ support. We distributed a simple questionnaire that collated information about any useful contacts that parents might have. This proved a very useful exercise and we felt we had gathered the support of parents right from the outset.

Obviously we wanted the governors behind the project too and they were very excited and supportive when we shared the idea with them. The buildings and grounds committee was particularly keen to get involved and the finance group was delighted when I reassured them that we were not intending to use any money from the school budget.

It is fair to say that one or two governors were pretty sceptical. They did not believe it was possible, in the current economic climate, to raise that sort of money, but this merely made us more determined.

Equally sceptical was the local authority. We are very fortunate to have a super relationship with Bowie Heer, our excellent Hampshire County Council (HCC) property services representative, but even he thought we were a little mad. I remember talking to him about the project in late September 2009 and because we had no funds at all he did not really take it too seriously. To his credit, as our fundraising year picked up momentum he became a central figure in the success of the project. One thing he did make clear at an early stage was that the local authority take a fairly “old school” view on the sort of pre-engineered wooden structured buildings that we were considering. Perhaps I should have taken this point on board, but for some reason I chose not to. I left the initial meeting with Mr Heer telling him that I would keep him informed of our fundraising progress and he promised to investigate companies building wooden constructions that had the approval of HCC.

True to his word, later in the autumn term Mr Heer came back to us with the name of a HCC-approved company that specialises in constructing wooden buildings for schools. We were excited at this and wasted no time in finding a building that they had recently built and going to look at it. To say we were disappointed would be a huge understatement – try to imagine a stereotypical scout hut from the early 80s. I had in my mind some sort of futuristic chalet building with a good mixture of wood and glass and what we saw was one step up from a Nissen hut. It was back to the drawing board and we told Mr Heer that we would continue to look for companies ourselves and keep him posted.

In the meantime, we were spending every possible moment raising revenue for the building fund. We raised what we thought was the requisite amount of money (approximately £180,000) only 10 months after we had started, so in June 2010 we thought we were ready to get the build going. Unfortunately, this was not the case.

Our search for a company that produced high quality pre-engineered buildings had proved fruitful. I work with trainee teachers at Southampton University and through this link I was asked to become a headteacher representative working with a large construction firm who were eager to put educationalists, architects and builders together to try to come up with blueprints of schools for the future. Through this work I met with more than a dozen experts from the construction industry and this gave me the opportunity to question them about the building we were looking to construct at Anton.

Everything I heard from them confirmed that our original desire for a wooden structure that was significantly cheaper than a brick building, and aesthetically pleasing as well as environmentally friendly, was the right way forward for us. I was put in touch with several companies that had a track record in successfully designing and building these robust, permanent structures that had a lifespan comparable to conventionally built buildings. I arranged for companies to come and visit us in Andover; I showed them the proposed site, discussed with them the purpose of the new room, put forward our desired dimensions and then discussed costs.

We narrowed it down to two similar sized companies offering a similar bespoke building at much the same cost. One company had a far more personable individual representing them. He had helped build the company up and I felt that he could deliver exactly the building we had worked so hard to raise the funds for.

Our original intention was to have our new studio as a stand-alone building, although several companies offered the option of adding it as an extension to our existing building. For a number of reasons we decided to keep it separate, not least because aesthetically we felt it would look better this way. The school community had worked together so effectively to raise the money for this project, and we were determined that the building had a real “wow factor” when people saw it. Additionally, our thinking was that the studio would be used by community groups after school, at weekends and during the school holidays. Our intention was that as we built relationships of trust with these local groups they would be able to be keyholders and would need no access to the school building or need for the caretaker to be constantly on site. We have used the same method in letting our all-weather pitch for many years and it has served us well.

The local authority, although supportive, was still a little anxious about us not going down the traditional building route so we arranged a visit to the factory so that we could see, and have explained to us, exactly how our building would be built. This was a major turning point for us as HCC were then able to understand the entire construction process and to see that its exacting building regulations would be met entirely by this modular build. At this point, no school in Hampshire had used this company, so we arranged to go out of county, again with HCC and governors in tow, to view a finished building that would be similar to ours.

After these visits everybody seemed to be happy to progress with the pre-engineered structure, especially after governors were told that the building would have a minimal structural design life of 60 years and, in line with their other projects, would achieve a BREEAM “excellent” rating. This meant little to me until I did a little research; BREEAM sets the standard for best practice in sustainable building design, construction and operation and has become one of the most comprehensive and widely recognised measures of a building’s environmental performance. In addition to environmental benefits, Mr Heer confirmed to governors that he had asked HCC to carry out costings for us and to achieve the same size studio using traditional building methods, the costs would be exactly doubled and the building process would take more than twice as long . Finally we were ready to go.

The local authority and the building firm then had to work together to ensure that they were building to exactly the same regulations. I quickly learnt that Hampshire has very high standards and it did mean that one or two minor modifications had to be made to the initial plans they had given us. It meant that we were getting a better building but it also meant that we would have to wait longer to get it. Planning permission was acquired by HCC on our behalf. With some modifications it did mean costs increased; the biggest increase was to pay for HCC involvement.

There were times during the process when I wished we had gone it alone, but the biggest grant we received stipulated HCC involvement. On occasion I became frustrated at the hold ups and considered forgoing this grant, but in hindsight we are really glad that we were patient, as we have ended up with a terrific building that will still be terrific in 50 years’ time.

Prior to the build starting, we thought it prudent to write to local residents giving them details of timescales and reassuring them that any deliveries to the school would not take place at the already busy periods at the start and end of the school day. We asked for a representative of the building company to attend a school assembly and to briefly and simply explain the main stages of the building process to the children. Typically, having waited some months for HCC and the building firm to agree on a start date, the first week of the build then coincided with our health and safety audit by the local authority. I know from the inspection work I do that a health and safety audit is not quite such a big deal in most local authorities, but in Hampshire it is fairly painful. Anyway, the audit passed off successfully without the construction work causing any issues – another box ticked.

One of the most exciting bits about having a pre-engineered building constructed is when the huge pieces of wall, floor and ceiling are craned into position. The builders had kindly tipped us off the day before, so teachers could bring their classes out to watch this exciting part of the construction. The children loved this experience. In fact that day was the most magical, because when the parents dropped their kids off in the morning there was nothing but foundations, but when they returned at 3pm the building was up. It sounds incredible but this really was the case. Obviously weeks of work remained, but the skeleton structure of the building was put up in less than five hours.

In all, the contractors were on site for 10 weeks and for a room of over 100 square metres we thought this was pretty good going. In order to track the build we put photographs of the different stages on our school website; we felt this was important as it gave a chance for all stakeholders who had contributed to the fundraising process a chance to see how it was progressing.

Towards the end of the construction, the company installed the sound system that we had chosen, as well as the 70-inch touchscreen I had previously seen at the BETT Show. As well as playing an important part in the day-to-day use of the room we thought these extras would add to the “wow factor” of the facility, and they certainly did. The children were delighted that they could record their dances on flip cameras, pop these in the USB port on the huge screen and watch their performances back instantly.

We planned an official opening of the building a few weeks after we started using it and were sure to invite everyone who had played their part in helping us raise the £200,000 that we had eventually needed to make our dream a reality. It was great to see so many year 7 pupils return to see the studio that they had helped us achieve, but had not had the chance to use before they left for secondary school.

A governor recently asked me if, with hindsight, I would do anything differently and while there were periods of waiting that were frustrating, without the knowledge and expertise of Bowie from HCC, combined with the specialist know-how and skills that the building firm provided, we would not have the absolutely fantastic facility that we have ended up with. So, in a nutshell, I am very happy with exactly how things have worked out.

The challenge now for us is to further develop community use of the building so that it can be used at weekends and evenings by dance and drama groups. This has very much been a community project from the outset and we are now keen that as many members of the community are able to come and use this new facility as possible.

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