Hard-nosed investorswon't back politics

12th April 1996 at 01:00
It is time to put away the buckets from under the leaking roofs, time to take the newspapers out from the rattling window frames, time to start removing the temporary classrooms." David Blunkett's images of schools that are "failing" were sure to strike a chord with delegates to the National Union of Teachers' conference in Cardiff, which was anyway ashamed of his treatment by militants a year ago. But in devising emotive descriptions of the consequences of underfunding, he was only restating what all opposition spokesmen have been saying about education for years.

Mr Blunkett knows that rhetoric is not enough from a party that believes it is on the brink of power. In the face of Conservative taunts about where the money is to come from, he is inhibited from making financial pledges of the kind which would be exploited as a profligate's charter during the election campaign. He can offer education a higher place in Labour's priorities, but he cannot risk the Liberal Democrats' penny on income tax.

So he has wrestled to bring forth a proposed 10-year partnership between the public and private sectors to refurbish schools. It is an ingenious plan because it would not further burden the public sector borrowing requirement. But it begs the question whether private finance would be available for the purposes Labour intends.

In effect, Mr Blunkett seeks to expand the Private Finance Initiative by which the present Government lays great store. So far the use of PFI money in education has largely been confined to universities and colleges, where specific projects like halls of residence have appeared to offer investors a return on capital, but little progress has been made at school level.

It is possible to envisage private companies or consortiums seeing profit in a new building. There has been talk of PFI involvement in the proposed replacement for Balfron High. But the kind of repairs identified by Mr Blunkett and familiar to teachers up and down the country pose different problems and little prospect for investors.

Local authorities can already borrow in the markets, as council tax payers in the Western Isles need no reminding. But whether a consortium would be interested in taking over school repairs and making a profit out of devolved school budgets is another matter. The record of company involvement in projects outside higher education is not encouraging. Despite Government pressure on businesses, there are no privately financed technology colleges in Scottish cities. South of the border the impetus for investment has been lost, despite ministerial rhetoric about kick-starting it.

Labour's wooing of the private sector is assiduous. It would be in the interest of business, as of the party, for a Labour government to be equated with a stable economy. The private finance initiative offers scope for investment in much-needed capital projects which only the most benighted among "old" Labour adherents would reject.

Yet repair of rotting school window frames is unlikely to capture the imagination of investors. Local authority budgets and the ingenuity of school managers must continue to take the strain.

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