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Private cash set to transform Falkirk

Falkirk's ground-breaking Pounds 60 million project to replace five schools using private capital is on schedule to begin building work next summer. The schools should be operational by August 2000.

The most ambitious schools building programme yet funded under the private finance initiative (PFI) will reach a crucial stage in December when a "preferred bidder" is announced. Submissions were received from nine groups, which have been whittled down to a short leet of three.

Falkirk plans to replace Bo'ness Academy, Graeme High and Woodlands High, upgrade Larbert High and relocate Dawson Park Special School on the Larbert campus, involving 5,000 pupils in total. The secondary plans alone account for half of the council's eight secondary schools.

The council's scheme has been designated as a "pathfinder project" which means the extensive documentation involved will be standardised and made available to other councils for similar projects. The Scottish Office has given Pounds 50,000 in preparatory finance.

Glasgow's hopes for a revamp of secondary education in the city also ride on a successful PFI scheme, worth Pounds 40 million. Malcolm Green, the city's education convener, believes that the Local Government (Contracts) Bill has removed many of the obstacles.

A council deputation has met Geoffrey Robinson, the Treasury minister responsible for PFI, and Brian Wilson, the Education Minister.

Dr Green said: "We now have ministers committed to PFI. The last lot got excited about it because it had P for private in the title. But as soon as any problem arose they were not prepared to put in any effort to resolve it. "

The rules were changed in September to allow "a level playing-field" between PFI schemes, which were not previously backed by revenue support grant to councils, and loan charges from normal capital expenditure, which were.

Under a PFI scheme cleaning, catering and maintenance staff transfer to the successful private sector consortium. Stuart Ritchie, Falkirk's head of corporate support, said: "We are trying to ensure that existing terms and conditions for staff are protected for as long as possible."

The Falkirk scheme envisages that the education service will have exclusive use of the buildings for the statutory 195 days of the school year from 7.30am to 7.30pm. Otherwise the premises, which are built, owned and operated by the private sector, will be available for non educational use. Services to PFI and non-PFI schools would remain the same.

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