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Improving the learning environments of small and remote schools

Efficient project management is the key to bringing a large Ministry of Education programme in on time and under budget.

Programme background

Ngā iti Kahurangi (NIK) programme, initiated by the Ministry of Education, aims to enhance the learning environments of over 600 small and remote schools nationwide.

By addressing lighting, noise, comfort, and energy efficiency, NIK seeks to not only tackle maintenance issues but also foster improved educational outcomes through evidence-based improvements.

Initially piloted in 19 schools, NIK proved successful in efficiently managing upgrades by employing dedicated project managers. Feedback highlighted the unique challenges faced by smaller, remote schools, such as inflated costs due to travel expenses for contractors and the reluctance of tradespeople to undertake low-value jobs.

Aligned with the Ministry's Designing Quality Learning Spaces (DQLS) requirements, NIK focuses on enhancing environmental factors crucial for effective learning. This includes upgrading lighting, acoustics, insulation, and flooring in teaching spaces.

Project Management through process refinement

Nationwide the project is divided into three zones, with a project management company appointed to run the project in each zone. Torque IP is the project manager for the Central North Island, managing work on more than 270 schools. Torque IP liaises with schools to plan and deliver the upgrades, including LED lighting, acoustic panels and quality carpet tiles in teaching spaces, and thermal insulation in ceilings. Replacing carpet tiles in teaching spaces with better quality, more comfortable tiles was added to the programme in 2023 after the project came in substantially under budget. Since electrical contractors would already be on-site, upgrading residual current devices (RCDs) to new standards is also included. Additionally, if asbestos is found to be present it will need to be removed in those spaces where work will be undertaken.

Torque IP handles the whole project, scheduling assessments, developing the plan for upgrades, engaging contractors, handling all communications with the school, and managing the work through to completion.

Phil Earl, Torque IP’s Technical Director says the process starts with doing a full audit on each site. “The Ministry does not always have accurate plans for these schools due to changes over time, so our first step is to create a digital twin using Matterport cameras. We scan the entire school and create accurate plans which are then reconciled with what the Ministry has on record for the school. We also do both lux testing and reverb testing to see if light levels and reverberation times in the teaching spaces meet the DQLS guidelines.”

With an accurate plan and data the next step is to document where new light fittings, RCD sockets, ceiling insulation, acoustic panels and new carpet tiles in teaching spaces are required. Digital twins are instrumental in reducing costs and improving outcomes. Torque IP is able to have lighting and acoustic specialists look at the digital twin to determine problems and recommend actions without the need for a site visit, saving both time and expense.

The first step is to create a digital twin, scanning the entire school and creating accurate plans which are then reconciled with what the Ministry has on record.

Likewise new software tools allow the on-site team to test lighting and reverberation levels, quickly work out whether the planned changes are sufficient to achieve the outcome, all without needing the expense of on-site consultants.

Part of the advantage for schools, says Earl, is that the central procurement model for products used in the project delivers not just cost savings, but better quality. “There’s obviously a per unit price difference between buying 200,000 lights and buying two. But the Ministry also wanted quality. These are not residential environments. You need your lights to last. You need your carpet tiles to withstand serious wear and tear. A local electrician might be able to provide cheaper LEDs, but they won’t last as long and then the school has to deal with the extra cost of maintenance.”

Torque IP also engages asbestos surveyors not just on the areas where work will be undertaken but the whole school. An asbestos management plan is produced so, apart from any work done in areas that the project touches, the school has a plan going forward on how to deal with any asbestos identified within the school.

With plans in place Torque IP then engages contractors to do the work, project managing the whole process, including all communication with the school and doing quality assurance to ensure what is delivered matches the design specification Torque IP produced.

Better environments for better outcomes

At the end of the project Torque IP produces a close out report and conducts surveys with the school to see how well it performed. Feedback from participating schools has been overwhelmingly positive, citing seamless project management and minimal disruption to teaching activities. Improved lighting, insulation, and flooring have been particularly well-received, contributing to a better learning environment.

Currently coming in on time and under budget, the project, due to finish at the end of 2026, has been expanded from its original 570 schools to 763.

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