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Don't let them start the job without you

Governors can help schools avoid pitfalls when refurbishing through the Private Finance Initiative.

JOHN Horan, governor and site manager at Trentham high in Stoke on Trent, thought the school was doing "very nicely" before the Government's controversial private-sector building scheme came along. Through the private finance initiative, the school has gained new windows and two new roofs, been redecorated outside and had its swimming pool refurbished as part of the council's pound;153 million contract with Balfour Beatty.

But there have been problems along the way, says Mr Horan, not least the disruption caused by different contractors at work at the same time, turning the school into a building site. And the work dragged on well beyond the agreed completion date.

Mr Horan's hunch that the PFI route is "going to prove more expensive in the long run" is echoed in a report published by the Audit Commission in January, which found that the initiative has so far failed to deliver cheaper or better schools.

Under PFI, school building and refurbishment is financed through partnerships with private companies, who carry out the building work and then receive a proportion of the school's budget to manage and maintain the buildings for the next 25 to 30 years.

For the Government, PFI remains a better option than funding building through higher taxes, and ministers have downplayed the commission's criticisms on the basis that its report covers only early PFI projects.

Greenford high in Ealing, west London, made two PFI bids for a new dining hall and sports facilities but both were turned down. Brian Reeves, acting head, believes the projects were too small to give the private sector a sufficient return. Now Greenford is going for a PFI pound;25m rebuild, as part of a bid with two other schools, and will hear in March whether or not it has been successful.

"PFI is the only way local government is going to be able to get the money: there is no other option," says Mr Reeves. Small-scale projects will, he believes, need other sources of funding.

Jane Phillips, chair of the National Association of Governors and Managers, agrees that, for governing bodies wanting a significant school upgrade, there is little realistic alternative to PFI. "Governors are between the rock and the hard place," she says.

This means that governors need to go into early discussions armed with as much information as possible. The PFI guide for governors recently issued by the Department for Education and Skills tries to answer some common questions, but gives little indication of the difficulties some schools have already encountered.

"Governors play a key role in the project planning and procurement process.

Your agreement and understanding are essential to the success of any PFI project. You will be involved at an early stage in deciding what your school needs," the document says.

Some schools, however, have had to fight rather hard for this early involvement, and some local authorities, according to a recent edition of the NAGM journal Governors' News, "are not keeping governors properly informed" about PFI contracts.

Fran Hollis, chair of governors at a south London high school, maintains that the local authority did not involve her governing body from the outset in the planning of a PFI project relating to the expansion of schools in the borough to accommodate a change in the age of pupil transfer.

Problems have ensued, with control of the site and the ability to open the school on time, and there is now a shortfall in the budget which is threatening those of all schools in Merton. A number of governors have resigned over PFI.

"Governors must be involved from day one of the project," she urges, "so that the school can be sure that the specifications are exactly what it wants and needs."

Brian Reeves, at Greenford high, agrees that governors need to be scrupulous in their attention to early details. "The governing body does not have to sign on the dotted line until it is totally happy with what is on offer," he says.

Fran Hollis also strongly recommends that governors have access to an independent adviser (for example, a surveyor) to help them draw up specifications and argue their case.

"Don't sign until you are happy with what you have got, and you are only going to know if you've got what you want by taking independent professional advice," she says.

Strangely, such a recommendation does not feature in the DfES booklet.

However, NAGM's Jane Phillips endorses it wholeheartedly. Governors, as well as some local authorities, she argues, tend to be less competent at negotiating deals than commercial contractors, and therefore they need support - which should be centrally funded.

"PFI is one of the key governor responsibilities that is rather more complex than we anticipated before we took the job. External advisers for governors undertaking headteacher appraisal are centrally funded, so why not advisers on PFI?"

FE governors, 36

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