The aim of this document is to provide advice and guidance in choosing a consultant in the field of education. You may be the headteacher or principal of a school or college, an officer in a local education authority (LEA) or school district, or the director of a private company wishing to undertake work in the educational sector. This article focuses mainly on information and communication technology (ICT), but the underlying principles also apply more generally.
Using a consultant
Consultants, at least in the UK, have a poor reputation as a species, and yet they are in greater demand than ever. Why? Why would any organisation elect to use a consultant rather than hiring someone? There are several reasons for this.
Some work is, by its very nature, short-term. If, for example, you are having a new computer suite installed, you might want some advice from an external person who has no axe to grind – and whom you can blame when half the staff complain about the design, the equipment and so on!
In a specialist area, such as ICT, it’s quite likely that the school doesn’t have the expertise in-house to do what it needs to do within a particular time scale.
Although consultants can be expensive, it is (or should be) a relatively short-term expense. And don’t forget that you don’t have all the on-costs, like pension contributions. These can add up to 20% of the salary costs. Also, if the consultant goes on holiday or falls ill, you don’t incur any extra expense.
Choosing a consultant
When choosing a consultant or adviser to assist your school in ICT, whether for Hands-On Support, training, strategic development or any other aspect of ICT, it’s important to get the right person or company for the job.
To help you do so, here is a list of questions you may wish to ask before hiring someone. You are unlikely to find any person or company who can answer “yes” to all of these questions, so you will need to bring your own professional judgement to bear on your decision.
1. Is the consultancy independently accredited by a quality assurance scheme, such as by NaaceMark or similar scheme? If not, is it seeking accreditation? Note that an answer of “No” in either case is not necessarily a bad thing. In my own experience, the work itself is so time-consuming that it’s quite difficult to go through the hoops required to prove that you can do what you’re doing! That’s why the next few questions are important too.
2. Is the consultant a member of a relevant organisation, such as (in the UK) Naace or the Society for Education Consultants? These types of organisation provide a certain degree of quality assurance in the sense that they won’t accept just anybody as members, although they will give no guarantees about the quality of work undertaken by their members. Also, they often provide useful information about the sector in which the consultant works, which in theory at least keeps the consultant up-to-date on current developments in the field.
3. Ask for details of similar work undertaken by the consultancy, and for details of satisfied clients – but bear in mind that a reluctance to supply such details may be due to considerations of confidentiality.
4. Ask for references, testimonials, or details of evaluations, ie evidence of quality assurance of the consultants’ work.
5. You can also ask how the consultant gets most of its work. Word of mouth is a good sign.
6. Ask for the CVs of the consultants who will be working in your organisation if you decide to sign up this consultancy.
7. Is the consultant qualified to undertake the work? This could be an academic qualification, accreditation as an inspector or training provider in one or more schemes, or qualification by experience.
8. Has the consultant been on relevant training in the last year?
9. Ensure that the consultancy agrees not to subcontract the work without prior discussion with you, the client.
10. If you are considering the consultant for staff training, ask if you can attend one of their training sessions in another school.
11. Ask for other evidence that will help you decide if the consultancy is the best for this particular work in your school, such as a client list (but note point about confidentiality above), examples of video work, published work or a website.
Using a consultant
Once you’ve decided on a particular consultant, have an agreement drawn up that ensures, for example, that you will be kept informed of progress. For example, it may not be unreasonable to ask for a summary every 2 weeks, if you are an LEA and the consultant is working in your schools.
Once you’ve hired a consultant, make sure you get the best value for money. This means some or even all of the following, depending on the particular circumstances:
Have a clear set of aims and objectives that you are both agreed upon. This may be developed in discussion with the consultant before signing on the dotted line, but there must be a clear set of expectations by the time the consultant starts work.
Make sure that the consultant has the tools needed to do the job effectively. This could mean access to the computer network, desk space, essential contact information and so on.
Ensure that you have all the contact information you need too: phone and fax numbers, a mobile phone number too, perhaps, with the facility for leaving messages, and an email address.
Put in place whatever is needed to enable the consultant to “hit the ground running”. If, for example, you spend the first morning discussing what the consultant should do, you’re throwing money down the drain: all that should have been agreed beforehand – unless, of course, there is a need for a sudden change in plan, although even in those situations there should have been a contingency plan (a “Plan B”) in place.
Don’t keep asking the consultant to do more and more in an unplanned kind of way. If more work is needed, discuss whether it could feasibly be done well in the agreed time, or whether more days need to be allocated for it.
With proper groundwork when choosing a consultant, and sound planning, hiring a consultant to help you with your ICT work can be an excellent means of achieving the aims of your organisation.