Learn to survive the builders

As West Lothian becomes the latest authority to run into flak over privately funded schools, Peter Wright offers advice on PPP without tears.

HE first wave of schools built or rebuilt through a public private partnership (PPP) is all but complete. Leaving aside for the moment, the more fundamental arguments over capital funding for the public sector, what lessons may be drawn from the PPP experience thus far?

The one permeating lesson is the supreme importance of close liaison between end users (teachers in this case) and the contracting authority and the successful bidder. At the local authority level, this means a working group on which all teaching unions and other unions who may have a legitimate interest, are represented. This group should monitor the programme from beginning to end, subject to the normal requirements of commercial confidentiality.

Next, there is little point in having good communications at authority level if they break down at school level. It is normal where significant building work is undertaken in a school for a senior member of staff to fulfil the role of liaison officer.

However, it is crucial that the person has sufficient time to undertake this. Experience suggests that the 0.5 full-time equivalent (FTE) which is commonly applied is not sufficient, especially when the building work begins. However as will be seen below, there is much which requires to be done in advance of any turf being cut. For this reason, nothing less than 1.0 FTE will do.

Planning. A word teachers regard with a degree of bemused tolerance. They see the need for it but often depart from the ideal. After all, the best lessons are sometimes those which spring from an ad hoc development in the classroom. The building trade, however, regards plans in a rather different way. Many an ambitious Pharaoh must have been told by many a royal architect: "Can't be done sire! It's not in the plans."

It is therefore absolutely essential that all teachers and other relevant staff are fully briefed regarding the time line for the build and especially of any deadlines for possible changes, however minor, to plans. If this is not offered at the start then teachers must demand it. They should also insist on seeing and discussing the room plans for their own working areas. Not generic plans although these may be used initially. No, the individual room plans which will be used by the builders. This will allow them to suggest relevant changes which otherwise might be "in with the bricks". Minor matters such as the position of shelves become significant - and expensive to change after they have been put in.

Finally, communication. When the building begins it is likely to be refurbishment rather than rebuild. The latter, with appropriate decanting of pupils, would be preferable of course although Glasgow teachers may disagree after their PPP experience. Indeed there should be a debate about whether significant building work should ever be undertaken when education is taking place on the site.

That said, when it does happen, it requires the very best liaison between the school staff and the builders. Without a full-time liaison officer this becomes very difficult. The idea that the organisation of the moving of classes, assuaging of fraught teachers and negotiating with equally hard pressed builders might be done while trying to teach a class, is frankly laughable.

Whether PPP is ultimately a good deal for the taxpayer, the schools it produces are unquestionably good for teachers and pupils. Our children deserve the best and most effective "learning zones" we can provide them with. Teachers need to ensure that the buildings so produced are truly fit for this purpose.

Peter Wright teaches in West Lothian.

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