PFI shows how political whims can impact on schools for years

The forthcoming general election, and Tes’ investigation into costly PFI projects, focuses the mind on the power wielded by our elected representatives

Ed Dorrell

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I clearly remember the first time that I became fully aware of the absurdity of the private finance initiative (PFI) contracts into which some schools were tied.

“Looks smart, doesn’t it?” the head of a secondary I was visiting said to me, pointing at the main reception. “It’s just been painted. So has the rest of the school. In fact, it’s painted every year, whether I like it or not. And I have to pay for it. Whether I like it or not.”

The school was bound into a PFI contract from which there was no escape. As austerity was biting – and the head was making increasingly difficult budgetary decisions – there was literally no way to stop the contractual paint job, as well as the bill that inevitably followed.

If ever one needed reminding of the power of politicians’ decisions over the lives of ordinary people – and the prospect of another general election really does concentrate the mind on that front – then PFI is a good place to start.

Born under the Tories before 1997, but really brought to maturity by New Labour, the PFI model allowed for private sector financing of public sector building projects – effectively, it was a hire-purchase agreement, lasting between 20 and 40 years. But instead of a nice little family motor, it covered groups of schools and hospitals.

It had many political advantages. It allowed the government to commission a fleet of shiny new schools without having to raise taxes. It allowed this spending to be kept off the nation’s balance sheet. It allowed the liability for any potential cost-overruns to live outside the public purse. It allowed Gordon Brown to say that he was good at doing business with business.

Raw end of the deal

The huge disadvantage was that many schools (and, indeed, hospitals) got tied into long, and often daft, contracts with private sector organisations whose main motivation was to eke out every last bit of profit from the deal they’d done. As such, schools often wound up paying for buildings they didn’t need, that were dysfunctional, and that, for example, cost Big Dollar to be unlocked if a school trip arrived back a little bit late.

Some such facilities management clauses were in the arena of the absurd (see our story in this issue for some examples).

Looking back on those crazy days of Labour largesse is like trying to picture the Land of Milk and Honey. The cash flowed so freely that it was perhaps not too difficult to justify spending a few grand on a paint job every single year. After all, the new public sector buildings really did have to be shiny and sparkly: these were Grand Projects, after all. Now though, things – and budgets – have changed: some schools would happily settle for a space large enough for their pupils to play in (see pages 12-13).

While tittering away at the viral video of the elderly lady greeting the news of June’s general election by lamenting “not another one”, it is worth remembering that our democratic rights pale in comparison with the powers exercised by politicians themselves.

And the repercussions of their decisions can last for generations – longer even than some of those farcical PFI contracts.

This is certainly the case for those children sitting this year’s new harder GCSEs, or the pupils having their post-16 options halved due to funding cuts. They are experiencing the consequences of political decisions that will last their whole lifetimes.

So while it might seem, over the next seven weeks, that politicians are droning on like the worst kind of lift music, just remember that – whatever their hue – they will likely make judgement calls that will have consequences for your students for a very, very long time.


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Ed Dorrell

Ed Dorrell

Ed Dorrell is deputy editor and head of content at the TES, former features and comment editor and former news editor. 

Find me on Twitter @Ed_Dorrell

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