Open all hours

26th August 2005 at 01:00
Is your school sitting empty every night? Matthew Brown finds out how one man can turn your buildings into hives of extracurricular activity - and make a bit of money in the process

A few vehicles are scattered across the car park in front of the modern, glass entrance of Oaks Park high school in Ilford, east London. Like most schools on Saturday mornings, it seems almost tranquil. Inside, however, there's a buzz of activity.

The gleaming hall is echoing to ghetto-blasted music and the cries of a dance instructor. In a classroom, down a corridor, Bob Sawali is giving six young children extra tuition in maths and English. In the hallway, Viv Elcock and her daughter Joelle are greeting queues of parents and kids arriving for a day's rehearsals with their theatre company, Turbelle's. And over at the gymnasium, eight black-clad adults are lurching towards each other with large wooden sticks and dangerous-looking swords, watched intently by their ju-jitsu instructor, Jason Hindley. It's like some government dream: brand new PFI-built facilities bristling with community use during non-school hours.

Flitting between the rooms is the slick-haired and suited James Woods, a 33-year-old former management consultant who now runs a small business called Schools Plus, renting out school space at evenings, weekends and holidays to local groups, or "my customers", as he calls them. He resigned last summer from "a sensible globe-trotting corporate job" that he'd held for 10 years. "I'd never really been that engaged in what I did and decided I'd rather offer my business skills to education. I have that missionary zeal."

Mr Woods persuaded headteacher Steve Wilks to show him round Oaks Park.

He'd heard about it from a friend who'd abandoned the same business background to become a fast track teacher and spent his teaching practice there.

"Here were these brand new, gorgeous buildings," he says. "But they were empty when the kids went home. It seemed such a waste." Spotting an opportunity, he asked Mr Wilks to let him organise the lettings, including responsibility for attracting new users and paying for utility costs, the caretaker's time and administration.

Mr Wilks admits to a touch of scepticism. "I couldn't see how he would make it profitable. But he had plenty of chat and I could see there was something in it for us."

In fact, Mr Woods's "unusual" offer removed one of the headaches that had plagued Mr Wilks since Oaks Park opened in September 2001: the use of the premises outside school hours. Oaks Park is one of 17 schools owned by a fund management company, Mill Group, and run through its Investors in the Community programme. Under its 25-year contract with Redbridge, the school's facilities are "available to the fund to achieve affordability" outside school hours. Or, in the head's words, "the school is mine until 6pm, then it belongs to Mill Group".

Involving the community is a big part of the private finance initiative promise, and Mr Wilks was keen to build links between his new school and local people. "Unfortunately, under PFI, the way school lettings are organised did not make it easy," he says. "People would phone me about hiring it. I had to direct them to Mill Group who would then phone me to see if it was free. When I said 'Yes', they then had to ask me if I could supply the caretaker, whose time I would later bill them for. It was an absolutely mad system."

What's more, there was little in it for the school. Under their contract, signed in July 2001 (when the first pupils were taught in mobile classrooms. The main block was finished in 2002; "full occupation" followed in January 2003), the first pound;33,000 from lettings goes to Mill Group and only beyond that threshold are any proceeds split three ways between Redbridge, Mill Group and the school. "One of the things PFI sells itself on is its benefit to the community," says Mr Wilks. "But there was simply no incentive for us to let the space."

According to the Department for Education and Skills, PFI contracts were standardised in 2004 "to ensure authorities did not lose out on third-party generated income". Just as well, for at Oaks Park, Mill Group director Simon Phillips admits there were problems. "Third-party income generation is not the big money-spinner everyone thinks it is. We realised that for schools to be used effectively outside school hours it does require a dedicated resource and incentives."

Luckily, Mr Phillips's "dedicated resource" turned up last summer in the shape of the entrepreneurial James Woods. Now, it seems, everyone's a winner. Mr Wilks's school is open all hours, helping to build better links with parents and improve the motivation of pupils. Mill Group appears to be fulfilling its Investors in the Community tag, while taking none of the risk. And Mr Woods gets a fair crack at making his missionary venture work.

The school's theatre, gym, sports hall and classrooms are used every evening and all weekend by up to 20 different groups; everything from Ilford Netball Club to Mr Sawali's "platinum tuition". Charges vary from pound;10 to Pounds 40 an hour and only adult parties, alcohol and religious events are disallowed, although Mr Woods vets all clients thoroughly.

The users are happy too. "I can't overstate the importance of having access to these facilities," says Jason Hindley. "It's rare to find somewhere like this."

Mr Woods's success in "extending" the school into an out-of-hours community centre is clear, although he says it's still only at 25 per cent of capacity. The long-term success of Schools Plus is less clear, however. The scheme has only just begun to make money and, anyway, Mill Group take half of any profits. "I've been living on my savings for a year," says Mr Woods.

"I think I've got till December."

For more information about Schools Plus go to

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