City's five new schools delayed

30th September 2005 at 01:00
Contractor urged to say sorry to pupils stuck in huts as pound;95m PFI project falters. Nick Hilborne reports

A pound;95 million private finance initiative project to build five new secondary schools in Exeter has been hit by delays.

Three of the city's five secondaries, St James's school, St Luke's science and sports college, and the ISCA college of media arts have started the term in a mixture of huts and old buildings.

No official opening date for the new schools has been announced, but parents have been told it will not be before January 2006.

A fourth school, West Exe technology college, scheduled to open its new buildings at half-term, has agreed to delay till January.

It is understood that the opening of the new St Peter's Church of England high, due for January 2006, could also be delayed.

The new buildings were intended to coincide with the abolition of Exeter's eight middle schools, which have been replaced with expanded primaries and 11-16 comprehensives. The reorganisation means that the five secondaries now have two new year groups of up to 2,000 Years 7 and 8 pupils.

Felicia Hart, headteacher of St James's, said the school was "just about coping" with the help of four mobile classrooms for five new Year 7 classes. The Year 8s are in the existing old school. "The new year groups, the Year 7s and 8s, say they don't mind," she said. "However, the Year 11s in particular are very disappointed because they hoped to spend a year in the new buildings. Now it will only be six months."

Terry Hammond, head of St Luke's, said that although he was optimistic, he would be concerned if the deadline slipped again.

"We are crossing our fingers we will be in the new buildings in January," he said.

He praised Devon county council for erecting 13 huts at St Luke's in three weeks, and adapting old buildings to accommodate two new students with wheelchairs.

Rick Jolley, deputy head of West Exe college, said some of the seven huts on his school site were better than the old classrooms. "We are very cramped, but that was always going to be the case," he said. "There has been a good, calm start to the term."

A spokesman for contractors Mowlem blamed the delay on major changes in design and specification demanded by Devon county council. He promised the new schools would be among the most technically advanced in the country.

But a spokesman for Devon said Mowlem had not dealt with the design issues as quickly as it wanted, leading to delays.

He added that a new primary, Wynstream, also part of the PFI scheme, had opened a term early, in April. "The schools are doing a remarkable job in buildings not designed for these numbers of children," he said.

Ted Wragg, the TES columnist who chaired a commission on the future of education in Exeter, called on Mowlem to apologise.

The emeritus professor of education at Exeter university said the designs were superb and that pupils were going to return early to show parents and the public around. "It's clear many are very disappointed," he said.


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