The attempt for the first time ever to draw up a national plan for school building replacement and investment follows the Scottish Executive's announcement in June of a pound;1.15 billion programme to support 350 new or renewed schools, backed by private finance through the public private partnership (PPP) initiative.
A school building seminar last Friday heard from Andrew Clearie of the PPP team at the Executive that the strategy is now in its third draft, and on course to be published before the end of December. "We don't just want to look at the scale of the investment that is required but also to make sure it is targeted in the right way," Mr Clearie said.
The strategy is a joint endeavour between the Executive and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. It aims to set out the broad vision, leaving it to councils to draw up their own plans.
Mr Clearie admitted that "massive" though the pound;1.15 billion PPP programme is, it covers just 1.5 per cent of the school stock in Scotland.
He repeated the Executive's commitment to a "mixed economy" using different funding methods. In addition to PPP, traditional borrowing consent would continue to be available to local authorities (pound;349 million worth of capital projects next year), the five-year pound;116 million "new deal for schools" runs into this year and the school building improvement fund now stands at pound;26.7 million which he hoped would be extended into next year.
Mr Clearie made it clear the Executive was not nailing its colours to PPP. It supported the move by Argyll and Bute to use a non-profit distribution organisation. This will be tested on the market next year.
He also underlined the importance of moves by the Executive to make PPP more streamlined and effective. The "staffing protocol" unveiled by the Finance Minister last week would put an end to two-tier conditions under which new non-teaching staff are treated less favourably, and the "schools'
standard PPP contract" should help reduce bid costs for contractors.
These developments were welcomed unreservedly by Alan Blackie, this year's president of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland. Mr Blackie told the seminar: "PPP is about a whole new way of thinking. It is not a buildings project; it is an educational project about what it is we are trying to achieve educationally."
Mr Blackie is director of education in East Lothian which has received Executive support of pound;37 million towards a PPP project for all six of the authority's secondary schools. He said that using conventional borrowing consent to do the same job would take the council 16 years instead of five.
He also argued that PPP was a fairer approach. "Using borrowing consent, you have got to decide which school comes first for investment and which comes last. Where is the equity for pupils in that? And which councillors do you keep at bay while you are going through the process?"
Mr Blackie said one of the most crucial issues is consultation and communication with staff and the public. The other is "to be clear what you want at the start and stick to it", although compromises will be inevitable.
The seminar also heard backing for Mr Blackie from John Hobson, a consultant who formerly headed the construction industry division of the Department for Trade and Industry in London. Mr Hobson said that PPP projects require a constant dialogue between education professionals, architects, designers, lighting and heating engineers and plumbers.
"PPP has the great advantage of forcing the client to think long-term and to think before doing," he said.
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