They don't call them school caretakers any more. First they became schoolkeepers, a grandiose title with echoes of medieval castles. Then they were called premises managers, very Eighties and Nineties. The latest title is facilities manager. But they are still a much maligned and misunderstood breed, many of whom manage to give the impression that if only schools did not house pupils and teachers - marking the floors and opening the doors - they would be much better places.
But with local authority services under threat because of money shortages and the private sector waiting in the wings to fill the gap, it's the men in blue overalls who look set to take on a new role and a new apparel - as professional managers of external services.
Raymond Gunn, premises manager at Crown Woods comprehensive school in Eltham in south-east London, looks after more than 215,000 square feet of accommodation, equivalent to two medium office blocks. Managing an annual services and maintenance budget of Pounds 350,000, he is responsible for supervising contracts for grounds maintenance and cleaning staff to ensure the comfort and safety of 2,000 pupils and their teachers.
Recently Mr Gunn joined the British Institute of Facilities Management. There are a number of specialist companies in this growth area that provide support services for multinational companies and public utilities. They hire security, reception, mail-room, catering, maintenance and cleaning staff, and can undertake virtually anything from purchasing paper clips to running health-care centres, allowing the client to concentrate on running the core business.
Since local management of schools, Raymond Gunn's job has become much closer to a private-sector facilities manager. "More responsibilities have been delegated to the school and I'm authorising maintenance and repairs as well as supervising council staff on contract," he says.
There are a number of big facilities management companies that would dearly love to take over running Ray Gunn's school building and all its services. But until a change in the VAT rules, announced in last November's budget, they have unable to do so.
Schools and colleges are VAT-exempt, but the administrative cost involved in reclaiming the tax has encouraged them to organise work through in-house premises managers such as Raymond Gunn.
Under the new rules, schools could open their doors to facilities management companies. Derek Gorman, educational sector director for Chesterton Consulting, explains. "In the past, schools have been able to employ staff and not pay VAT. So when a professional facilities management provider stepped in, he had to charge the school VAT on the complete package of services. Now, schools and college funding bodies can fund the additional VAT costs, making it more equitable for facilities management companies to compete."
This ruling was designed to pave the way for private finance initiatives whereby the private sector funds a big capital project and leases back a fully serviced premises to the public-sector client. With facilities management companies now bidding to operate prisons, hospitals, universities and FE colleges, it can only be a matter of time before local education authorities bow to the inevitable and open the door to them to help clear a growing backlog of repairs that is threatening the quality of education in so many schools.
Mike Ripper senior consultant at Johnson Controls, believes there is already a market for his type of firm within the grant-maintained sector. One manager could procure services for a group of schools to achieve economies of scale. "Ten or fifteen schools grouped together would be a very attractive proposition for a national facilities management contractor like us. You could put one manager in charge of running contracts on all those sites and the combined spend would give you a host of procurement advantages such as being able to negotiate lower energy prices from a single supplier."
Chesterton's Derek Gorman has been examining the feasibility of bundling groups of schools in Northern Ireland together. Anything less than an annual budget of several millions would be uneconomic. "Individual schools are too small to cover the on-costs in putting in a bid to provide managed facilities management services," he said.
But managing a group of schools on a fixed-term contract of three to five years, facilities management companies may be able to make more savings than even the best local authorities. Such companies typically offer performance guarantees, an agreed maintenance schedule and indemnify clients against unexpected breakdowns or damage. And, because they have access to private finance, they could afford to invest in capital works independently - such as installing a new heating system - where the payback is reduced running costs. These sort of deals are common currency in industry.
At the moment it is up to schools to take the initiative. Once the VAT question is resolved, we might see facilities management companies joining the market - possibly taking over local authority direct labour organisations and offering schools the chance to buy into centrally managed operations.
Mr Ripper warns schools that they will have to sharpen up their acts. "Schools may find they don't have the skills they need to manage contracts effectively. They need to set up systems, such as bench-marking or performance targets that will enable them to control and monitor the services provided."
Meanwhile, Mr Gunn certainly believes Crown Woods school is well prepared for any change. "There is nothing I don't do that a facilities manager working in a big office building doesn't. In fact, I doubt if they could do my job."