Learning to love the PFI ...

24th October 2003 at 01:00
It's easy - once you realise that good communication with the contractor is the key. Phil Revell reports

Malcolm Trobe and Sue Roach are members of a select club, but one that is growing all the time. They are heads in schools that have been built from scratch under the Government's controversial initiative to privately fund and manage public-sector building projects.

"We were the first private finance initiative school to open, in 1999," says Sue Roach, head of Hull's Victoria Dock primary.

"The building is beautiful," she says."It's bright, light and airy. The community looks after it and the children respect it."

In Wiltshire, Malcolm Trobe's Malmesbury school was a slightly bigger project. He's been in the new building for five terms, having moved from a split-site school. "We had an Ofsted inspection in 1997. They said that the split site was a huge hindrance to the development of the school. Wiltshire suggested a PFI scheme that December and we started putting a bid together in 1998," he says.

There are currently 39 fully operational school PFI projects covering hundreds of brand new, replacement or refurbished schools. There are also 14 partnership projects, where the private sector provides a management service. So far pound;1.6 billion has been spent on contracts with a further pound;1.6 bn on projects in the pipeline. Nearly pound;900 million has been earmarked for the future.

PFI deals have had a troubled history. For instance, in Newcastle, a reorganisation has left one expensive PFI school surplus to requirements.

Throckley middle school opened this term, part of a pound;100m PFI deal to redevelop the city's schools, but it faces almost immediate closure because of a move to a two-tier system.

In Glasgow there have been problems with sports and leisure facilities after a citywide PFI.

In Bradford, contractors had to be recalled to remove asbestos from 52 of the 106 schools that had been recently renovated.

Mr Trobe's experience has been rather different. He says: "We have a couple of issues. Our food rooms are getting too hot because the ventilation isn't coping. In one or two rooms the lighting isn't adequate."

He points out that any major building project should expect teething troubles, adding: "But on a standard building project the local education authority would do a lot more 'snag finding' than they did here."

The eventual bid encompassed Malmesbury and two other schools. One of the first lessons local authorities learned was that contractors were not interested in small-scale projects. They will not mend the leaking roof or provide a much-needed classroom. They want multi-million pound deals.

Wiltshire's PFI worked out at pound;125m over 30 years. There were three bidders, with a consortium led by Group 4 selected three years ago.

Negotiations then went on for another year, and building works for a further 18 months.

"I suspect that I have spent two days a week on this for three-and-a-half years," says Mr Trobe.

That experience has been distilled in a book just published by the Secondary Heads Association. Mr Trobe co-wrote the book with Malcolm Noble, head of Bexleyheath school in Kent.

The advice will be welcome in schools like Ashfield girls high in Belfast, where chair of governors Penny McKeown is just starting down the PFI road.

"We're at an early stage, in a project that will involve six schools," she says.

Ashfield's governors aren't opposed to PFI, and they are looking forward to moving into new and better buildings. But they are apprehensive.

"The biggest worry is around making sure that the needs of each individual school are identified and carry equal weight. There are also issues about the level of support for the school through the process. These will be technical problems, but we aren't experts," says Ms McKeown.

Some would argue that these are issues best left to the LEA, a view the SHA authors reject.

Mr Trobe points out that councils have not been involved in the day-to-day running of schools since the early Nineties. He argues that many lack the expertise to anticipate the kind of problems that may arise.

"It's absolutely critical that heads are involved in the whole process so that they can say 'Look this won't work'," he says.

"That's a cost, and it should be built into the project. They should build in some payment to the school."

Mr Noble in Bexleyheath agrees. He has yet to see a brick laid, but has already spent months working on the details.

"We have the bidders and the contract consortium and we are waiting for planning permission and financial approvals," he says.

"You have to get across to everybody what it is that you want to see.

Otherwise you will get a bog-standard building."

Mr Trobe adds: "We were very much educating the builder and the architects."

One of the issues in Malmesbury was about storage space, office space and staff working areas.

"We had to fight for that space all the way through," says Mr Trobe.

Once the building is completed it is controlled by a facilities management company for the life of the contract - 25 or 30 years in most cases.

"A point we make in the book is that the project lives or dies by the quality of this contract. It has to be written by people who really know what they are about," says Mr Trobe.

And it costs. Typically the yearly management fee is between 8 and 10 per cent of the school budget.

"You think 'My God the cost, I could be spending this money on the children'," says Sue Roach in Hull. But, she argues, heads have to take a long-term view.

"In 20 years the head will appreciate the way the building has been looked after."

She believes that a key factor in Hull has been that builder and facilities management were the same company. Day-to-day management, she says, is about relationships.

"We have a contract. It's in the bottom drawer of my desk and I want it to stay there. Our facilities management company is very helpful, but personalities matter, and you have to work at the relationships," she says.

SHA general secretary John Dunford believes that PFI contracts must recognise the key role played by heads and governing bodies, and that support for the school must be built into the process.

"LEAs must recognise that they rarely have the expertise to manage their side of the contract.

"They need to buy in that expertise, otherwise heads are going to be left holding the baby - for anything up to 30 years," he says.

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