How principals can optimise school development

How principals can optimise school development

When embarking on school development, principals face the complex challenge of steering enormous projects that span the entire campus.

Before the rubber hits the road on these projects, principals must judiciously consider various factors, such as the nature and necessity of the development, timeframes that align with educational goals, financial implications, and strategies to engage the community positively.

The growth in demand for new developments in schools also requires those involved in these initiatives to understand each State or Territory’s complex planning and environmental laws – a critical consideration if a school want to avoid potential legal challenges.

Todd Neal, partner in Colin Biggers & Paisley's planning and environment team, says that in the experience of the firm, visionary, ethos-aligned projects yield better outcomes than ad-hoc, reactive ones.

Below, The Educator speaks to Neal to find out how school principals can navigate the challenges of development projects, from managing community relations and legal complexities to creating a sustainable, long-term vision for their schools.

TE: How can principals effectively balance the need for school development (such as new facilities or infrastructure) with maintaining positive relations with their school’s local community, especially in areas where there is significant resistance or NIMBYism?

Once a rational need and plan for school development is devised, Principals should confidently and unapologetically set out what the plan is. They can provide opportunities for feedback through social media posts, letterbox drops, or community meetings where they advance the case for the development and advise that feedback will be considered before finalising the application. They should have a clear process that they follow to ensure people at least feel heard. Principals need to be able to articulate what the School's needs dictate in the form of the proposed development. They should explain the purpose of the consultation is to identify any improvements that can be made. That avoids conveying impressions that the development may be aborted through "loud" objections, and instead provides an opportunity for legitimate constructive engagement. In doing this, there needs to be a real willingness to make adjustments where warranted to avoid the consultation process being seen as a sham. Well organised and run processes like this can be quite disarming of neighbour NIMBYism.

TE: What are some common pitfalls or oversights school principals should be aware of when navigating the complex planning and environmental laws across different Australian jurisdictions, and how can they best prepare to avoid these challenges?

The biggest pitfall we see is schools assuming the laws do not apply, and naively meandering through a development process hoping for the best. Don't assume development can occur without some kind of permission. Instead, it is important to be aware of what you do not know or understand, and triage issues so that where legal risks exist, proper advice is obtained. Schools need to be aware there is now a vast amount of legislation and case law within each State and Territory regulating development, and development actions cannot occur in the same way that they may have occurred 50 years ago.

Due to the complexity, it is becoming more and more important to have specialist consultants that can navigate the regulatory environment and competently liaise of the regulators.

Another example of an oversight schools have is to carryout "piecemeal" development due to budgeting constraints. Often these piecemeal processes can be disorganised and lack a more wholistic vision that would in the long run be more cost effective and result in a better form of school infrastructure. Front ending the cost might be difficult to initially digest, but pays bigger dividends in the years to come.

TE: Could you share some successful strategies or case studies where schools have effectively conducted public consultations, leading to both community support and successful development outcomes?

Often the legal profession comes in to fix processes that have derailed, and lawyers are not necessarily engaged at these early stages or on projects where good consultation occurs because the development is a success. All too often we see the problematic matters where there is a roadblock that needs to be overcome. 

However, we have been engaged on a number of school projects that have been well organised and have had successful development outcomes with good public consultation. Once the vision is articulated by the School's leadership, the key in these projects is having competent project managers vested with authority to run simultaneously the numerous streams of activity associated with a development project, and who can organise measured but meaningful community consultation. These people know enough about each component of the development process to create project tempo, but also know when to slow down and obtain specialist advice. They set clear parameters for the consultation process which are adhered to generating integrity for the project. Integrity is about doing what you say and following through, rather than capitulating to the demands of every objector. It sometimes means being able to say no, and explaining why.

TE: Given the rapidly evolving nature of education and community expectations, how can school principals develop a flexible yet sustainable long-term vision for school development that accommodates future changes in educational needs and legal frameworks?

Principals and their leadership teams need to be in a sense prophetic - see the future or at least have a good prediction of the directions the school is heading towards, and what facilities are needed to teach the skills and competencies needed for the future of their students. This does not mean adopting every fad, but requires discerning what is in the best interests of each school given the ethos and values of each school. They should be monitoring various macroeconomic factors, social demands for education, demographic trends to make rational predictions about the future and to then develop a plan on paper on how they want to shape the future of the school through new development. There is not enough space here to set out how to draft a good plan, but resources exist to help. A plan is just that - a plan. Plans can change, and should be reviewed at appropriate intervals for a reality check.  This may include audits and polls of parents, the school council, and teachers to "take the pulse". Principals can engage with other school principals and relevant experts where necessary to understand future issues.