Project Management: Pre-opening essentials

So you have had your free school bid approved – congratulations! What comes next might feel like stepping into the unknown. The pre-opening phase can seem a daunting prospect, even for a seasoned project manager. NSN has compiled a list of simple tips for managing your project. These tips will help you to get started on your journey into pre-opening and beyond.

Identify the right project manager

Finding the right person to manage your project is essential. Your project manager will act as a critical mediator between the trust and the Department for Education (DfE) and should support and challenge the trust in its decision-making throughout the process. As well as possessing crucial organisational management skills, they will need to be flexible with their capacity and available to make quick decisions.

Until your principal designate is in place, it is likely that your project manager will lead on engagement with the school’s key stakeholders, of which there will be many, with varying levels of support and interest. Engaging with stakeholders in pre-opening requires pragmatic decision-making, a passion for the project and empathy with the views of others. Identifying a project manager with excellent communication skills should therefore be at the top of your priority list. If you are looking to buy in external project management support, consider how these key attributes can be woven into your job description.

Establish a project steering group

The project steering group is responsible for overseeing the delivery of the key pre-opening tasks. The steering group might be made up of executive members of the trust, or it may be a sub-committee of the trust board. You will need to consider where it will fit within the project structure and what level of delegated authority it will be given throughout the project.

Crucially, your project steering group will need to consist of individuals with the relevant expertise. For example, you will need to appoint a project director or finance director to oversee the project finances. Other essential skills include HR, estates management, health and safety, safeguarding and marketing. When establishing your project steering group, be sure to review and update the time commitments listed in your application to reflect individual and team capacity.

Develop a detailed project plan

A strong project plan will keep you on track and ensure that no task will slip through the cracks. When developing your plan, you will need to consider every possible action that will take place throughout pre-opening. Tasks that are delivered by the DfE will also require your time and input, so include these as part of your schedule. Recruiting the right person to the role of principal designate may require up to three rounds of interviews, so be prepared to allow some contingency time for difficult tasks such as the IT procurement process and setting up a bank account. NSN has a number of freely available project management resources on our website and further support with your project plan can be accessed via our Delivery Programme.

Be savvy with your project development grant

The Project Development Grant (PDG) is there to support you with essential, non-capital pre-opening revenue costs such as staff, room hire, advertising, leaflets etc. It will need to last you until the end of project, so you should carefully plan how this money will be spent. Crucially, the PDG is public money, meaning any spending of the grant needs to be justified to the DfE. Be efficient when managing your costs. For example, a project manager undertaking administrative tasks is not good value for money – consider whether you will need to recruit an admin assistant/officer.

Make sure you are compliant with the procurement rules of the Academies Financial Handbook to secure best value for money.

If you have any further questions, contact NSN at our helpdesk: helpdesk@newschoolsnetwork.org or call us on 020 7537 9208.

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