Responsibilities of the school leader during a school expansion project
ITM talks to lifetime international educator, Ronald Stones OBE about his experience of leading schools through major design and expansion projects. What advice would he pass on to the new leaders of 2024?
A British international pioneer
Ron Stones is a true pioneer of the modern international school era. He led major design and expansion projects in South East Asia as Head of School at the British School, Manila in the 80s, as Principal of the British School, Jakarta in the early 90s and then as Head at Tanglin Trust School, Singapore between 1995 and 2011. He laid the foundations – and more – for all three schools to become the powerhouses of all-through British international education that they are today.
In Jakarta he was responsible for the complete relocation of a small but rapidly growing Primary school with largely improvised facilities in the city centre to a newly designed, purpose-built 3 – 18 campus in what was then the seemingly remote new suburb of Bintaro Jaya. In Singapore he planned and implemented the staged redevelopment of Tanglin’s historic Portsdown Road site, expanding the school from its early years and primary roots to become the leading 3-18 British international school in South East Asia.
He has worked with boards, parents, architects, project managers, engineers, banks, governments, embassies, students and perhaps, most importantly with teachers.
He is arguably the leading figure transforming the British international landscape of South East Asia before, during and after the millenium. Sensing the needs of fellow heads of school who were also getting involved in similar expansion projects in Asia, he was the driving force behind the foundation of FOBISIA (The Federation of British International Schools in Asia) in 1988 and its growth in the 90s. He is the Founding Director of The Grange Institution in Singapore and he still serves on the Governing Board to the innovative Green School in Bali.
As international education continues to grow globally, we wondered what insight Ron could offer to those who find themselves thrust into school leadership positions with responsibilities to design and build facilities that can accommodate a growing school population. We caught up with him in the New Year and asked him to reflect on his experience of the last thirty plus years as a Head charged with the responsibility of leading these exciting, but challenging projects.
His thoughts are as instructive as they are practical.
Lessons of experience
“Almost nothing I had done in my earlier career as a teacher and school leader had prepared me for project work and I think it is still true to say that school leaders responsible for design and expansion projects will be drawing on experience more than anything else to guide them – especially if they are lucky enough to have been part of a design team as a teacher.
“Looking back, it is important to think in terms of what needs to be done, broadly broadly speaking, in two phases – before the project begins and then as it gets underway.
Phase 1: Review
“Being clear about why the project is needed is important. It is vital to ask oneself how rigorous the process has been in reaching the conclusion that new building (and thereby signifcant spending) is necessary. With this in mind, leaders might examine:
- Has the need for a project been fully justified? Just why are additional spaces needed? What part does overcrowding or a desire to expand to provide places to accommodate students of different ages play?
- Has there already been a review of comparative maintenance, renewal or renovation needs? Have such reviews considered the knock-on needs of refurbishing, replacing or upgrading?
- Have such reviews resulted in a budgetary need that can be met? If not, how can that need be reduced?
- If the process of review confirms the need for new space or land or buildings, then comes the process of identifying a suitable site on which to design and develop a project – and rarely does that not require design or budgetary compromise. What geographical and other restrictions are there in that identification process?
Phase 2: the design and building
“Once the need has been clearly defined, a budget established and, as necessary, a site identified, things become more complex and layered. Good communication is essential. These are the key tasks for which the school leader must be prepared for as design and implementation proceeds:
- Announcing and launching the design project – including the key personnel who will play a part in the project
- Creating and assembling design teams from teaching and support staff who can take responsibility for the design of working spaces according to the ideal for each age or specialism
- Making time available so that the teams can meet, consult and document
- Ensuring that design teams incorporate green thinking into the project so that the resulting design is one in which energy-saving initiatives are included
- Working with the architect behind the scenes to take the resulting design ideas from each team and to bring them together into an ideal learning village of different spaces, which may not so obviously fit together and may require push and pull to fit into the budget
- Identifying – if possible – a particular design feature that can be included in the project to give the school a unique identity
- Mediating in conflict of ideas in order to achieve a compromise when there is disagreement between teams as to their ideals
- Planning communication, community briefings and updates – which may include newsletters, progress photos or videos, site visits, invitations to VIP guests to see the project in progress – so that the current and future enrolment wants buy-in and plays a part in the process. This may require a positive and/or exaggerated focus on location and access to the site, traffic conditions to reach the site, cleaner air at the new site, more convenient vehicle parking arrangements, more space available for a wider range of sporting and other activities, less crowding . . .
- Finding solutions to problems as and when required. These may include – but not be limited to – delays in the estimated completion and its use, obstructions in the allocation of land and/or space
- Planning how to celebrate the successful conclusion of the project
“The responsibilities are enormous, but as the team comes together, the community moves forward and students enter the new school for the first time, nothing can match the sense of accomplishment of leading a successful school design project. It is, despite the challenges, the most wonderful experience in the educational world.”
Ronald Stones OBE, is the former leader of some of the world’s most prestigious international schools. He is a Governor at the Green School in Bali and adviser to the Crestar Group in Singapore.