Raising the Standard in the Education Sector

It wasn’t that I doubted we deserved it (of course we do!), but lightning rarely strikes twice. So when the nominations were read out, I wasn’t thinking about how to weave my way through the tables to the stage. A minute later I’m shaking hands with the BBC’s Gavin Esler, trying not to look too gormless in the photo (failed!) and not trip as I left the stage (mission accomplished).

So, what does it take to be selected as the best contractor in the education sector two years on the trot?

There is little doubt that Willmott Dixon is as active in this sector as any contractor, and has an enviable track record – c.350 school building projects completed or in train since 2007, representing over £1.5bn of investment in education accommodation. But blind statistics tell only a fraction of the story.

We have worked hard to understand our clients: the educators, the funders, the policy makers and the ultimate service users - students. Those 350 school projects (many of which came via the SCAPE National Major Works Framework) have generated learning that we take to the next scheme, to lever better outcomes for our clients as we improve functionality and eliminate waste.

That process of refinement is best illustrated by the Sunesis Education offer, our response to the gauntlet laid down by the James’s Review to drive greater value from a more standardised approach.

Having been on the ‘inside’ of the Review in my time with the EFA as their Divisional Director for Programme Delivery, it has been exciting to observe a lead contractor’s response from the other side of the fence.

Mike Coleman, Education Director, Willmott Dixon

‘Standardisation’ is often derided as providing homogenous solutions that fail to respond to complex needs. We were very mindful of that risk so, when developing Sunesis with our SCAPE partners, we created a suite of designs, each with their own palette of options. After all, it’s been a long time since Ford offered cars in any colour you wanted, as long as it’s black. From the first Sunesis school, Oakfield Primary in Rugby, through to the latest, Carr Lodge in Doncaster, we have continuously evaluated client satisfaction, refined buildability, reduced construction time and provided cost certainty, whilst improving the overall quality of the product. The SCAPE National Major Works Framework has been an excellent vehicle for promulgating these benefits to a wide range of education clients, providing the ideal platform for maximising value for the public sector.

Of all the standardised models that emerged post-James’s Review, Sunesis is the most successful, both in terms of schools built and numbers of pupils educated under their roofs. It continues to be so attractive because of the simplicity and functionality of the designs, based on sound educational principles, combined with high quality construction standards and a streamlined procurement process that saves the client both time and money.

But we remain committed to making those designs even better. Last year we launched a ‘mark 2’ version of our Sunesis Keynes design, incorporating the lessons learned from our early projects and changes required by the latest EFA standards.

Of course we visit each new school in the weeks after opening, and listen to the views of the teachers, the pupils and the parents. But it’s at least as important, perhaps more so, to go back in a year, and see how the building has facilitated learning, and where a tweak can ensure it does so even more effectively. If you think you’ve got it right first time, you are doomed to repeat the same mistakes.

Sunesis has been a constant process of refinement, of ‘the aggregation of marginal gains’, to nick Sir Dave Brailsford’s mantra. After all, few would have believed Team Sky would win the world’s toughest sporting event once when they launched in 2010. Three Tour de France wins later they lead the world in their field. While I can’t claim Willmott Dixon and Sunesis have reached those heady heights quite yet, two awards in two years is at least a step in the right direction, and an acknowledgement of our commitment to innovation and, most importantly, meeting our clients’ aims and expectations.

Mike Coleman
Education Director, Willmott Dixon

07900 890546

Mike Coleman portrait

Written by:

Mike Coleman

Education Director