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Private finance is given short shrift

Scottish education authorities are in no hurry to embrace the Government's private finance initiative for their schools. Councillors in the Western Isles and West Lothian have pulled back from immediate commitment.

Original optimism about using private sector money for three community schools in the Western Isles turned to scepticism at an education committee meeting on Tuesday. A report showed that proposals for Lochs and Point schools in Lewis would be feasible only without their S1-S2 provision and such community facilities as a swimming pool or ice rink. A proposed third school - West Side, which would incorporate Airidhantuim and Barvas schools - would not be affordable without other savings being found.

The report from the education and finance departments pointed out that land values were crucial elements of a PFI scheme, but the value of land in rural areas of Lewis was low. "So while PFI would represent a tidy way of dealing with the often messy process of decommissioning rural schools, it would probably be of limited financial appeal to operators."

The report concluded: "To use PFI rather than capital consents or special consents would mean the scope and scale of community schools is sharply reduced." Unfortunately there was virtually no scope in next year's capital programme to address the problems.

Roddy Macdonald, chairman of the education committee, said: "If I had a choice I would not touch PFI with a bargepole." Neil Galbraith, director of education, said: "We were never going to have the land values that will make PFI work. The only alternative is a capital consent programme."

Meanwhile, Bathgate Academy in West Lothian is not going to benefit from PFI, at least in the short term. It was one of two schools in the former Lothian Region identified as possible pilots for the initiative.

Under a plan put forward by an English company it would be provided with a multimedia learning centre consisting of 17 work-stations for pupils. Link Training, which is based at Eastham in the Wirral, has proposed setting up pilot centres within five or six secondaries in the four new Lothian councils. It would pay for the workstations and for staff.

The council's education services committee was told on Wednesday that Link still had to do its market assessment and that the council should consider its own financial involvement and the effects on the school curriculum.

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