Susannah Kirkman talks to two heads who have benefited from the scheme to encourage private investment in schools.
In a bid to revive the flagging private finance initiative, which encourages business and industry to invest in education, the Government earlier this year announced a new Bill which allows grant-maintained schools to borrow money from the private sector. This follows hard on the heels of a lavish brochure explaining the original initiative, which has just been sent to governors.
Launched in 1992, the initiative has so far attracted only a handful of schools, most of them GM. Many heads and governors doubt whether the aims of business and education can be compatible. Paul Edwards, the entrepreneurial head of Knottingley High School near Wakefield who has just turned a Pounds 48,000 deficit into a Pounds 30,000 surplus, blames the dearth of response on the lack of appropriate training for school managers.
"We need training for entrepreneurship, not training for Dearing," he said. "There is still a deep suspicion of working with businesses, and a lot of heads are struggling to cope with the stresses and strains of local management. "
Paul Edwards urges schools to throw off their unease at the competitive business ethos. "A declining resource base means we have to seek the best we can for our children," he insisted.
Far from being a rabid Thatcherite, he describes himself as a traditional Labour voter who believes that, with lower taxes and an ageing population, the state can no longer afford to finance schools adequately. He sees his main role as generating finance: to seize lucrative opportunities, a head has to be at the chamber of commerce, not in the classroom.
He admits that it's almost impossible for lone primary schools to initiate finance projects. As most primary heads teach, they don't have the time to be entrepreneurs and many would argue that the opportunities don't exist. Paul Edwards' answer is that they should band together with other primary schools, or with secondary schools, to make joint business plans or bids for funding.
At Knottingley, where Paul Edwards has recently taken over as head, he is planning a language centre which will offer shares and language teaching to local businesses.
Local primaries will also have the chance to share in the language teaching programme, attracting future pupils for the high school.
His former school, Garibaldi, an 11-to-18 comprehensive in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire now enjoys profits of around Pounds 100,000 a year from its various enterprises, as well as superb new facilities.
Some of Garibaldi's financial projects are as far removed from education as the ticket-selling franchise it operates for Alton Towers theme park (see caption, right).
At Sawtry Community College, a grant-maintained school in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, the emphasis is on benefit to the community, not profit.
Sawtry receives a nominal rent from a private nursery proprietor for a mobile unit used as a day nursery and creche.
Teachers, parents and adultstudents - including women returners doing A-levels - use the facilities. Pupils can gain work experience at the nursery, and it plays an important part in the Health and Social Care GNVQ.
"It makes us a true community college. We're now dealing with all ages, " said Alan Stevens, the vice-principal. But he thinks schools must exercise caution if they're not to fall into the hands of disreputable firms. A proper business plan is essential; the nursery owner had to present a five-year plan and has been granted a five-year lease on the land. References have been carefully checked and the scheme has been cleared by the bank.
"It's a big bonus for the college. It's given us the confidence that this sort of business partnership can work," concluded Alan Stevens.
* Education Means Business: private finance in education is available from the Department for Education's publications centre, 0171 510 0150.