What’s your coffee worth? Why training days and consultancy cost what they do | Creative STAR Learning

Jeanne A. Curley

I have been fortunate enough to have been a freelance education consultant for many years and recently retired. The only element of my work I hated was having to charge a fee. But like most of us in society, I needed income to cover the costs of living so it was an unfortunate necessity of working.

You may have seen a considerable range of prices charged by consultants, regardless of their specialism. Just like having a cup of coffee in a cafe. The price of the cup of coffee is not simply the cost of the coffee but reflects the hidden costs of someone to order the supplies, clean the crockery, serve you, clean up afterwards, the rent of the space, the cost of decor and furniture, the wages of staff, their pensions, business insurance, marketing and much more. Different types of coffee cost different amounts depending on size, how it’s made, added extras, whether it’s organic, how it’s been sourced and manufactured and so on. Some cafes are considered more trendy than others depending on location, name, and ambience.

It’s rare that someone goes into a coffee shop and haggles over the price. If you don’t like the cost and the place, you don’t go there. If you can’t afford it, you drink coffee at home. You buy your coffee in accordance with your values and your income. Going to a cafe has its advantages – the social element, the chance to try new type of coffee, a change of scenery and so on.

Likewise, when a consultant charges a fee that is way more than a day’s teacher salary, it’s because there are hidden costs. Comparing the cost of a consultant to the cost of a teacher is to forget or be unaware of these hidden costs. These include: book keeping or accountancy fees, insurance, travel costs, travelling time, the use of one’s home or hire of an office, resources, books, computer costs, website costs and so on. Time to manage all of this on top of the front-line work is also needed. Often there are resources or handouts to prepare, Learning how to run a business takes time. In addition to this, is the skills, knowledge, experience – the expertise – of the consultant, which needs constant updating too.

Whilst there’s always a few cowboy consultants (and remember there’s always a few people who are teachers or educators that shouldn’t be), most are genuinely good-hearted people trying to do the best they can for children and staff in schools and early learning and childcare settings. Almost all of them do what they do to make a positive difference in our world. Very few set out to be freelancers. it is something that they stumbled into, usually with the encouragement of others who saw this person was doing something special or unique that was worth others knowing about. Or like me, it was the only way we can do what we need to do to make a difference in a way that we feel suits our strengths and weaknesses.

Like drinking a cup of coffee in a cafe, there’s advantages and disadvantages to using a consultant. The disadvantage is the cost, and, more rarely, if there’s been miscommunications and misunderstandings which result in you not getting what you expected from the experience.

I didn’t have my costs publicly available on my website. The reason for this was that every school, local authority, piece of writing or consultancy work was different. Depending on the context, the same course could be a lot more or a lot less work. Local courses saved me travelling time and so on. Occasionally I would be used by a consultancy firm who set the fee, not myself. Thus my costs were never straightforward in my line of work.

From my 15 years in the world of freelance education consultancy, here’s some things I learned:

  • If you want something for free, there is a hidden cost somewhere to someone. For example, free training provided by a local authority seconded teacher, may be free to a school, but the local authority is bearing the cost. That’s your Council Tax and Income Tax or part of the education budget that is not shared among schools. If you ask a member of staff to organise a training day, there will be a supply cover cost to give the person the time they need to do this… or some other element of their work has to be dropped or put on hold whilst this happens.
  • A good consultant makes it look easy. They have honed their skills and craft. Do not be fooled. I was hugely reassured several years ago when a couple of academic friends from different institutions told me that their presentations never took less than a day to prepare. That was the same for me. We live in a rapidly changing world, and pulling out the same stuff year after year is unlikely to work. Admittedly a good joke is a good joke, and like a comedian we do sometimes have to repeat them… or a particularly poignant quote or line of enquiry or thought.
  • Never ask or expect a freelance consultant to work for free. You wouldn’t teach for free. If you are a conference organiser, the line “it’s a great marketing opportunity or way to raise your profile” is not sufficient. There’s exceptions to this rule. A good example are TeachMeets. I also used to do Big Days for Independent Thinking Ltd because they always paid travel, subsistence and accommodation, you had short slots so plenty of time to see other presenters in action and it was a form of professional development for myself.
  • What is the consultant or trainer offering which the staff within your school or LA cannot? Usually it’s practical expertise and materials that help shift mindsets, creative approaches or ways of tackling challenges, the ability to demonstrate impact and often saving days or weeks or months of time. Listen to them carefully and heed their advice. For example, “training covering everything about outdoor learning” is simply not possible. Offering a basic introduction, or a specific aspect of outdoor learning is realistic.
  • Communicate effectively with the consultant. Yes it’s a two-way thing, and don’t spring last minute surprises such as “Oh by the way, could you just add a bit about xxx into the day at 8.30am when the session kicks off at 9am. Be clear in advance what is expected and what you are getting for your money. Check the small print in advance… often it’s the little things that cause havoc and become big issues when communication is lacking.
  • Consultants are humans. That means we make mistakes. Things go belly-up and not everything goes to plan. Our minds can suddenly empty and we forget stuff or get a statistic wrong. Be tolerant, at least to a point. But if you really feel you’ve been given a bum deal then nicely, kindly, have a private word with the consultant and sort it out. Many will not charge or will reduce their fee if you don’t feel they have done a good enough job or do something else to make amends. Check the small print in advance.
  • Take the time to find the right consultant or trainer. Word of mouth remains the common way of hiring – in other words, getting a recommendation from another person or organisation. But still do background checks. Do they have the breadth and depth of expertise you need? Do their values match that of your school or local authority? Is what they are doing dovetailing with other approaches and ways of working? Is the consultant a one-hit wonder or have they more to them? What’s been their impact, how do you know and is this what you need?

Finally, enjoy the time spent with a consultant. It’s a unique chance to review, reflect and refresh one’s practice. They often think differently and are positive disruptors. And remember it takes 3 cups of coffee to get to know a person…

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