Life in the spotlight takes it toll

18th February 2000 at 00:00
What happens when your school is overtaken by headline-grabbing events? Pat Leon tells why she quit as chair over the controversial private finance deal at Pimlico school.

WHEN I took over from Jack Straw MP as chair of Pimlico school governors in November 1998, I had no idea the Home Secretary was handing me a poisoned chalice in the shape of the Government's private-finance initiative.

After all, I was chair of a dynamic body full of expertise and enthusiasm to improve a popular inner-London comprehensive and ensure its survival.

The most important task was to build a good working relationship with the headteacher. We all liked the headteacher, who had turned around the budget by operating with a depleted senior management team, seen off an inspection and was busy assessing how to deal with an intake becoming skewed because of selection elsewhere.

As to PFI, common sense would prevail. What was needed was to open up the debate and revisit the options.

They did need to be revisited: governors were split down the middle over plans to knock down our ageing, "brutalist" 1960s building and rebuild it on three-quarters of the site with services run by a private contractor for 35 years. The sale of the rest of the site would help finance the deal. Pimlico was to be a pathfinder project - the first school in the country to contemplate PFI.

The idea was spawned under the then Conservative government. I believe the view then of Mr Straw as chair was "let's see how this one runs". The trouble is it has been running ever since - and no one has applied the brakes, pulled into the lay-by and looked at the map.

That map would have shown too rugged a terrain for a private-public partnership. Parents, teachers, ancillary staff and the local and architectural community were all vocal in their opposition. They preferred a refurbishment rather than a building site. If there was rebuilding, they preferred some removal of pupils to another site.

It is easy to ignore opposition if the majority is silent. But under local management of schools, an initiative dependent on stakeholders must involve them in a meaningful way and allow a full debate of the options.

So, after checking our legal position, we applied the brakes in March last year. The vote to do so was as narrow as any before and since. But the project had still not won planning approval so there was everything to play for.

We looked at alternatives. What became clear was that the pro-refurbishment camp was also split: between followers of the school's original architect John Bancroft, who was now talking of using PFI for a refurbishment; and another parent-led group, which was devising a cheaper rolling programme of repairs. The figures either way ran to millions.

The school was receiving only pound;10,000 a year for maintenance. So, other than fundraising on a massive scale from a poor community, we were relying on the local authority for support.

But Westminster education authority was not going to back two horses at this stage. It was already locked in negotiations with a private consortium for the PFI and to all intents and purposes had government approval for this to go ahead. In June, councillors gave the project planning approval.

In July, schools minister Charles Clarke devoted a morning to hearing interested parties' viewpoints. Evidently, Pimlico was a hot political potato.

We thought the weight of the decision would then be taken off our shoulders and the Department for Education and Employment would decide once and for all. We were wrong. Governors were asked to vote again on whether they approved the PFI "unequivocally". That evening Clarke was reshuffled to the Home Office.

During all this I had enjoyed weekly one-to-one talks with the headteacher, plus the usual round of committee, appointment, exclusion, disciplinary, and post-inspection meetings. It was a steep learning curve given the Government's policy shifts.

Still, I was fired with enthusiasm for what Pimlico could achieve given the calibre of its staff and its really comprehensive ethos. We just needed a secure future.

By last September, I, the head and more than half the staff, when balloted, came to the pragmatic conclusion that the future was best served by accepting the new building in the face of no realisable alternative.

The governors voted - narrowly again - to support the PFI. In theory, that was what the Department for Education and Employment wanted. But it was not "unequivocal" and such was the anger that the head and I generated by voting for it - despite our neutral position over the previous four years - that we became victims of technical, legal and personal manoeuv-rings by a disgruntled section of the governing body.

This might be the stuff of politics for the Home Secretary, but not for me. The pressure reached a point where an unpaid voluntary position was consuming time and energy to the detriment of a full-time job and family.

A warning at work precipitated my resignation four weeks before my term of office ended.

This in itself raises the question of the demands placed on governors who work. But the aftermath of messages from governors and parents of all persuasions was kind. Everyone understands that the PFI scheme had stirred passions.

There is still no decision on the future of Pimlico. The governing body is still split and has told the DFEE not to expect agreement.

Yet the Government tells us we are "stakeholders". I believe it is the DFEE that holds the stake - and it is driving it into our governing body's heart.

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