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PFI schools unlikely to stay the course

'Cheap' buildings may have lifespan as low as 20 years. Joe Clancy reports.

DOZENS of schools built under the Private Finance Initiative programme could have a lifespan of less than 20 years, a Government design body has warned.

It accuses local education authorities of not having the experience or knowledge to design new school buildings and says they are too ready to choose the cheapest option.

The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment is now offering to provide design experts to advise on new school projects to prevent more bad buildings being constructed.

CABE's head of communications, Hilary Clark, said: "There are too many cases of people being relieved to leave behind the bad conditions they have endured in a school built in the 1960s and 1970s. They get a smart, clean building that is infinitely better, but we believe that in 20 years time the building will be in the same state as the school they have left."

However, she said lessons were being learned, and there were a higher proportion of schools under construction with the potential to last for up to 100 years.

Natural light levels, how staff and pupils circulate around the building, and provision for information technology are key factors to be considered in designing a school.

"It is not about how a building looks but how it works for teachers and pupils. Its function and fitness for purpose is more important than style," she said.

The new Malmesbury School in Wiltshire, which opened in April, was cited as one example of a poorly designed building (see box below).

A CABE report published this month, Improving Standards of Design in the Procurement of Public Buildings, called for a senior design "champion" to be appointed to every major public sector project.

Earlier this month, public sector workers union Unison renewed its call for a public inquiry into PFI. It followed a survey by the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants that showed most people did not think PFI offered value for money.

But among teacher unions PFIpragmatism appears to reign. David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said:"It is the only game in town. If people can identify examples of how PFI has been an unmitigated disaster in terms of the construction and quality of buildings then it has to be looked at. But I do not get that impression."

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