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Project Management for Education Sector Construction Projects

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When planning a new school building or university campus, there's a temptation to focus on the tangible outcomes: state-of-the-art classrooms, high-tech laboratories, and inspiring learning environments. However, the success of educational construction projects is dependent on ensuring that the vision of educators, architects, and stakeholders translates into a functional, timely, and budget-compliant build. That's a job for a project manager. This article looks at the unique considerations for managing construction projects in the education sector.

An artists impression of a student accommodation project at Oxford University

Decision making for education projects

In the education sector, the design and construction processes need to be aligned with educational goals and regulatory requirements. Universities, colleges and schools often have fixed governance structures that have been established and operated over a long period of time. The process can be difficult to establish as decision making is placed in the hands of many rather than few.

The typical decision making process in an education establishment is a contrast to a that of a corporate entity. Corporate decision making tends to be hierarchical, with a leader executing against a strategy, with accountability checks provided by a single company board, that provides checks and balances across the strategic corporate vision.

An educational institution usually has greater oversight provided by multiple strategic and/or operational committees. The ultimate decisions are provided by a governing body or board. Day-to-day decisions are undertaken by a operational structure within a framework agreed (and accountable) at the governing body.

So what does this mean for the project manager?

Understanding and flexibility are key to success. The project manager needs to understand the importance of the governance framework and political landscape. They are responsible for developing and executing strategies that help to move the project decisions through the process, making sure the project’s brief can meet the stated objectives.

The project manager might not have the opportunity or responsibility to attend and present at all committees and boards. This means they need to be great at briefing others, as well as delivering their own presentations.

Workers lay paving outside a university building

The Project Manager's Key Responsibilities in Education Projects

Coordination and Communication

In any construction project, the project manager acts as the linchpin connecting various stakeholders, including employees and management, architects, contractors, and government authorities. They ensure that everyone is on the same page, to avoid misunderstandings, and encourage collaboration between all parties.

Managing the budget

Educational institutions often operate under strict budget constraints, and cost overruns can jeopardise the entire project. The project manager will plan and monitor the budget, identifying opportunities to save costs without compromising quality. This includes negotiating with suppliers, managing contracts, and ensuring that financial resources are allocated efficiently.

Time Management

Timeliness is critical in educational construction projects, especially when deadlines coincide with academic calendars. For example, it's imperative that noisy works are avoided during exam season. The project manager will develop a detailed timeline, or project programme, scheduling tasks in such a way that minimises delays and disruptions. They use techniques such as critical path analysis and Gantt charts to keep the project on track, ensuring that the new facilities are ready for use when needed.

A Gantt chart with some post-it notes reminding the project manager when summer schools are happening. The construction works will have to take place around them.

Construction Quality Assurance

The quality of construction directly impacts the safety, functionality, and longevity of educational facilities. A key part of construction project management is the implementation of rigorous quality control processes, conducting regular inspections and addressing issues promptly.

Risk Management

Every construction project carries inherent risks, ranging from supply chain disruptions to unforeseen structural challenges. The project manager will carry out a thorough risk assessment, allowing for the early identification of potential risks and the development of mitigation strategies. This is particularly important in the education sector, where project delays or failures can significantly impact students and staff.

Stakeholder Engagement

Educational construction projects often involve a diverse group of stakeholders, including school boards, parent-teacher associations, and community members. A project manager engages these stakeholders, keeping them informed and involved throughout the project lifecycle. This builds trust and ensures that the project aligns with the community’s expectations and needs.

Soft landscaping is being installed at a project at Oxford University

Sustainability and Innovation

Many schools, colleges and university have ambitious sustainability strategies that lead the way in green building practices, integrating energy-efficient systems and sustainable materials. The project manager keeps up-to-date with the latest trends and technologies in construction. This means that they are able to make recommendations that allow the educational institution to benefit from cutting-edge solutions that enhance learning environments and reduce operational costs.

Lessons Learnt

The project manager’s role doesn’t end with the completion of construction. They oversee the transition to occupancy, ensuring that all systems are operational and that the facility is ready for use. Once all the snags have been addressed, they'll conduct a 'lessons learnt' exercise, gathering feedback from stakeholders to identify any issues that need addressing and helping to improve future projects.

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Darren Hewitt

Darren has over 25 years experience in the construction industry. Within this time he has led and delivered construction projects for major blue chip clients.

Darren has held senior roles in both client and consultant organisations. This gives him a full understanding of the construction process and level of stakeholder engagement required to ensure successful project/programme outcomes.

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