Playing to a theme

By 2020 hundreds of school buildings will be run by public-private partnerships

Sir John Colfox, an 11-18 specialist languages college on the Dorset coast, was the first English school built under a private finance initiative.

Opened to staff and 1,000-plus students in September 1999, the pound;11.5 million school is modern, low-rise construction set in dramatic countryside.

Public sector partnership with private contractor Jarvis plc (the largest PFI player in education) is working well at Sir John Colfox. But the smooth-running was not automatic. "For the first year we were both learning," says headteacher Chris Mason.

As one of the first British heads to become fluent in the language of partnership, Chris Mason has been fielding around three visits or enquiries a week regarding PFI, from the UK and abroad. The first lesson, he says, is to understand there is nothing philanthropic in the relationship. "If the school needs something, parents will say 'Jarvis ought to provide it'. But the company will provide only what is specified in the contract."

Jarvis - which employs a site manager with his own team - owns the building, on land leased from the LEA. But, says Chris Mason: "It's more than a hotel to us - it's our daily life, our education, our growing up."

A sense of joint ownership is key. "It cannot work unless you feel you're working on the same enterprise - Jarvis wanting to provide the best possible facilities and us wanting to make sure the company has a viable project."

An early difficulty at Sir John Colfox was the proliferation of sub-divisions on the Jarvis side. Jarvis facilities management - responsible for day-to-day maintenance, and an offshoot of Jarvis Construction - appeared on site only when the building opened. "We were getting to know each other at the worst moment," says the head. In the early days, two or three days a week were spent in meetings.

Teething troubles - faulty fire alarms and a computer network virus, for instance - were compounded by other problems: lunchtimes ran way over deadline, for instance, disrupting afternoon lessons.

There are areas of ambiguity regarding maintenance; the school is responsible financially for damage caused by students, while the company must pick up the bill for out-of-hours vandalism or damage. But if a broken door is discovered in the morning, who can say whether it happened before or after 6pm?

Forging the language of partnership has taken its toll. GCSE results dipped from a high of 61 per cent to the mid-50s in the year the school moved into the new building; this was partly attributable, says Chris Mason, to the disruptions of that year, and was made worse by raised expectations. "We should be aiming high," he says. "It's one of the things PFI makes possible."

PFI makes life easier, as well as more difficult. When Chris Mason took up the Bridport headship in 1985, the school had not been decorated for 17 years. He knows that will never happen again within the 30-year contract.

"If the boiler needs renewal, it's not my problem. We're able to concentrate on what we're here for."

Chris Mason retires this year after a gruelling several years midwifing the school into being. He returns to the paramount importance of relations on site. "It has been a good experience, despite the frustrations. We went through a period of difficulty, out of which we should now be emerging."

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