Partners in building a new future

A primary school lies at the heart of a new development that many see as the city's way forward, writes Esther Leach

The school badge sums up a unique partnership - a trowel and brick within the circle of a ship's wheel, depicting the country's first private-public finance initiative that built Victoria Dock primary school.

The head, Sue Roach, speaks proudly about a brave and innovative partnership between Sewells, a local family-run construction firm, the school and the local education authority.

"Some have a misconception that we are a private school - we're not," says Ms Roach, who was appointed head while plans were still on the drawing board. "We are an ordinary LEA school in a privately owned building - that's the only distinction."

The school nestles in the heart of a new settlement of executive-style housing overlooking the River Humber. The homes were also built under a public-private partnership. Such developments could be a way forward, not just for Hull's beleaguered education authority but for others like it.

"It just takes a different mindset to make it work," she says. "I've worked in Hull before with a school which had difficulties, so I knew what problems there could be. But I like Hull very much. I moved from York to live here, and the idea of a new school built in this way was exciting. Here was a council and LEA that were ready to go through uncharted waters. There was no model to follow - it was new, completely new."

People had to pull together to make it work, she adds, not least Sewells, a firm with a history of work in the local community.

"There is an income stream in it for them," she says. "They built the school and they now run it via their facilities management company. They'll make money, of course, and some people have trouble with that, but you have got to be realistic - it can't be done for nothing."

That company is partly funded by the LEA and partly from the school budget, and it will last for 25 years. "We have to think long term to make it viable," says Ms Roach. "And this has its critics. Some people might say I have lost control of a large part of my school budget, which I have - things to do with maintaining the building, energy costs, cleaning costs, catering costs, computer hardware costs are put together as part of the facilities management company. So you could say: 'Oh well, when you're not spending the money on a new roof or a new boiler, you could be spending it on something else' - and yes, that's true. But it's a trade-off for an immaculate building over 25 years and no hassle for me - and I don't have to chase contractors."

It is in the interests of Sewells to have high building standards, she explains, because the company also maintains the school. Security includes self-locking gates and shuttered windows to deter vandals, and reduces the risk of rising maintenance bills.

Every morning the facilities manager, on site all the time, inspects the site and anything that's not working - right down to a hairline crack in a tile - is put right almost immediately.

"Everybody benefits from an immaculate building," says Ms Roach. "Everyone loves coming to work, the children are lifted, there is so much pride in this school. People want to be here, they are happy here, and that has a knock-on effect on their attitude to school and to learning.

"When children leave for their secondary school, they will have the confidence and the right attitude to do whatever they want to do. We are very aspirational, and we are a school with a can-do culture. We teach children to believe in themselves and their ability, and we make them aware that there are endless opportunities no matter where they are."

Opened in 1999, Victoria Dock primary is already bursting at the seams. A second building phase will be completed in January and there is already a third phase planned that will eventually cater for 240 children, virtually all of them from the new village. It is a success story that is confirmed by a glowing Ofsted report which emphatically praised the involvement of the community.

Simon Gardner, Hull's deputy director of education, believes the pattern here could be repeated throughout Hull, adapted to meet the needs of different areas that also have surplus school places and empty houses.

"It would be foolish of us to ignore the success of the Victoria Dock story," he says. "It tells us that urban renewal and schools are one, and that school and community are inextricably linked and support each other."

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