Brent to test private cash initiative

Government attempts to get businesses to reduce the national Pounds 6 billion backlog of school repairs faces a critical test in London next week.

Headteachers and governors in the London borough of Brent will consider radical plans to solve a Pounds 28 million buildings crisis.

Options put together by financial consultants Deloitte Touche on handing schools over to the private sector to repair and manage will be put to a meeting in the Labour-controlled borough on Tuesday.

The heads and governors will be given 10 days to decide whether they want to proceed with the proposal, which is open to both local authority and grant-maintained schools.

Brent believes it has no alternative but to seek help from the private sector.

Last Christmas it was forced to send 2,500 children home from school because of failed heating systems and flooded buildings.

The authority this year received Pounds 461,000 from the Pounds 115 million allocated by the Government for school repairs, but chief education officer John Simpson says the gap "between that and what we need to spend is noticeably large.

"This is the only way I can see that all children in Brent can be educated in accommodation which is modern, well-heated, lit and designed - a learning environment for the millennium."

But some heads and governors, who enjoy one of the highest levels of budget delegation in the country, are loathe to give up their independence.

The Brent branch of the National Association of Head Teachers has told the authority that any decisions taken next week could not be binding and that governing bodies should have until the end of term to discuss the proposal.

"Our members are caught between knowing something has to be done to resolve the building crisis and wanting to remain involved in the decision-making about their school," says NAHT general secretary David Hart Under the scheme, schools would be expected to enter into a 25-year agreement and to pay an annual fee to a contractor via the local education authority. The cash would be deducted from their budgets.

In return, the company would repair crumbling buildings within the next three to five years, possibly build nurseries and end the need for temporary classrooms.

The contractor would also take over the management of the buildings - cleaning, caretaking, energy maintenance and letting - although ownership would remain with the local authority.

The public-private partnership is open to the 62 local authority primary, secondary and special schools in Brent, and the 16 who have opted out of council control.

Some schools have already said they are not interested.

"In the main they have well-maintained buildings and very good lettings income," says Mr Simpson.

"I want to stop the disruption in schools because of building problems. I want them to be able to concentrate on teaching and learning."

Martin Stratford, director of Brent's schools libraries and youth service development unit, says his service is enthusiastic "because we can't see any other way of doing this work. At the end of the day we haven't really got an alternative - it is better than the buildings becoming a danger to the children."

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