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Borders PPP is 'dynamite'

Scottish Borders has become the latest authority to propose a major overhaul of schools under a pound;68 million public private partnership (PPP) package.

Councillors were due to discuss the proposals yesterday (Thursday) amid predictions from Jock Houston, the veteran Educational Institute of Scotland activist who is now a Liberal Democrat councillor, that they are "political dynamite".

The plan envisages that up to 11 primary schools may go, but not all will involve straightforward closures.

Councils like Scottish Borders argue, however, that they have no option but to take action. All authorities are having to undertake reviews of their school estate if they are to stand any chance of winning PPP support from the Scottish Executive.

Those that do not will also come under pressure to do so from Audit Scotland and HMI on the basis that occupancy levels are unacceptably low.

The Scottish Borders review is ground-breaking in that it attempts to draw up a new methodology to rank the quality of its school buildings - and, unusually, this was produced and approved by a small group that included representatives from school boards and three headteachers as well as council officers.

According to Glenn Rodger, the council's director of education and lifelong learning, "a practical and commonsense approach was used rather than an obscure or purely theoretical statistical formula. This approach tries to match the realities of school life and took account of the variations between school sizes, pupil numbers, the age of buildings and geographic locations."

Scores were weighted so that "fitness for purpose" was worth 30 per cent of the total, occupancy levels 26 per cent, operational costs 20 per cent, community access 14 per cent and sports provision 10 per cent.

It was on that basis that the 11 primaries were classified as "either unfit or very unfit for purpose". They had low or falling rolls, had poor facilities or were situated in the wrong place which made them too costly to bring up to an acceptable standard.

The council's review group then scored the remaining schools according to whether they were in the highest priority category for investment or other action; this includes 35 schools.

A second category made up of 45 schools with lesser needs was considered to be of lower priority although Mr Rodger's report points out that even these schools have a maintenance backlog of more than pound;6 million.

Priority schools will be included in the PPP package which has been drawn up around schemes that will attract bidders, who tend to favour new rather than refurbished schools.

The report from Mr Rodger sets out for the first time a clear baseline for inclusion in PPP projects - schemes worth less than pound;1 million are unlikely to offer value for money for contractors over the 30-year payback period. The plan is that the council should deal with these through its normal capital works programme.

Likely PPP candidates could include a school to replace Lauder and Channelkirk primaries in the Earlston area, a Galashiels-wide solution for new schools in the town, a campus to be shared by Kingsland primary and Halyrude denominational primary in the Peebles area and a school at West Linton to replace the local primary and neighbouring Newlands primary.

Decisions on this complex set of proposals are unlikely before next year and new PPP-funded schools will not be opened until 2007-08.

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