Pooling resources to build for the future

25th August 2000 at 01:00
The first schools to be refurbished and built in Scotland by new private and public finance partnerships have just been opened in Falkirk by Donald Dewar, the First Minister. Neil Munro reports

The Polmont taxi-driver is not impressed. Driving to Falkirk Council's education HQ, he says he has never noticed anybody working on the sites of the five new schools. "The buildings I have seen look exactly the same," he suggests.

Graeme Young, the director of education, is not impressed. "He didn't say when he thought interest rates might be going up as well, did he?" Mr Young has no doubt about the revolution his council has pioneered. He needs no reminding that one of its secondary schools, Bo'ness Academy, was "a disaster" - a reference to the buildings, not the teaching. It proved to be the catalyst for forming a public-private partnership (PPP) which has renewed the council's five schools in worst repair - Bo'ness Academy, Graeme High and Woodlands High in Falkirk, Larbert High and Dawson Park in Bainsford - at a cost of pound;340 million over 25 years.

Some of the 1,000 Bo'ness pupils were housed in a 1970s building which, quite simply, began to shift - possibly because of old mine workings. An investigation by structural engineers some years back described the deteriorating walls as resembling Gruy re cheese.

"The school was definitely at crisis point," Mr Young says. "We were told it would no longer be safe within 10 years and possibly five: that was three years ago."

So, with another four schools in varying degrees of disrepair, Falkirk Council began to think big. Although Labour-led and with a hostile Scottish National Party breathing down the administration's neck, the councillors nonetheless decided to call in the private sector after heated debates behind closed doors. A contribution of pound;8.5 million a year for 25 years from the then Scottish Office ensured that the council would face no additional costs beyond what would have been incurred from the normal borrowing consents for capital projects.

Two years ago this month a deal was finally struck with the formation of a consortium called Class 98, led by the council and an array of banks, finance houses, contractors and "facilities" companies which will manage the cleaning, catering and janitorial services. All non-educational activities will pass into private hands during the 25 years of the contract, while the council will be responsible purely for the educational aspects.

Sceptics and critics will continue to be sceptical and critical, particularly over the financial advantages and disadvantages. Precise figures are hard to obtain. But Mr Young takes a straightforward position. "From the private sector's point of view, it's quite simple; they're aiming to make a profit. From the council's point of view, and given that we were facing a major new build with Bo'ness Academy anyway, the bottom line is that this is the only way we could afford to deliver five new schools within two years."

Even the teaching unions, which are critical of privately-funded schools in principle, acknowledge that it was the only funding option for Falkirk.

The capital cost for the schools is pound;70m, considerably more than the pound;3.5m which Falkirk's education department receives from the Government this year for building projects. The five schools are all different. Graeme High, with 1,500 pupils, and Bo'ness Academy are completely new buildings. Graeme High has even moved - 300 yards on to part of its extensive playing fields.

Woodlands High is replaced by Braes High, a completely new school four miles away, serving the growing commuter area of Braes. It has an initial roll of 700.

The 1,550-pupil Larbert High now occupies one site instead of two, thus avoiding the disruptive dash across a busy road to the other building half a mile away.

Carrongrange, formerly known as Dawson Park, is the only special school involved. Cateringfor 230 primary and secondary pupils with moderate learning difficulties, it has now moved on to the Larbert High campus. This will clearly make integration of pupils from the two schools easier, although Mr Young emphasises that this will be "as appropriate". Carrongrange will remain in a separate building with separate facilities and a separate headteacher, he says.

The partnership seems to have avoided getting submerged in Glasgow-style arguments about a lack of swimming pools and playing fields. All five schools have both, although there was a last-minute rush to get the sports pitches ready for the grand openings. Sports facilities will be crucial to boosting the community use of the schools, which in turn will be crucial for generating the consortium's profit.

The former Woodlands pupils in particular will notice a difference: their physical education classes in the past began with a somewhat vigorous run up a steep hill to an exposed site. "Their first PE exercise was getting there," Mr Young comments.

He is adamant that the project has not cut educational corners or cut classrooms down to size to comply with the financial imperatives of the PPP. "It depends on what your point of contrast is," he says. "Classrooms are obviously much smaller than the huge Victorian ones but they are still larger than the regulations require - 55sq m against 50sq m. Rooms are not big, but they are adequate."

William Thompson, head at Graeme High, praises his "fresh new surroundings and new facilities". There is more room for classes and storage space than he had anticipated.

Byron Milton, the area secretary for the Scottish Secondary Teachers Association, also confesses to being "pleasantly surprised" by the appearance of his school, Braes High, where he is head of business studies. The practical subjects are particularly well-appointed. The rooms are spacious and there is good storage, though it will be "a bit of a squeeze" to accommodate 33 pupils in the general purpose classrooms.

He is, however, critical of failures of communication and consultation with school staff during the project. "When they did decide to consult, responses had to be in by yesterday," he says. But he concedes that points raised by the business studies staff in the schools have been addressed.

In the excitement over the new buildings, it is easy to forget that Falkirk has four other secondary schools. Mr Young is at pains to underline the council's determination to avoid a two-tier system. The five PPP schools virtually identified themselves because they were in the worst condition "by a long way", he says.

Mr Milton acknowledges that there has been a great deal of unease among teachers that the five new schools are in a privileged position. "But part of that has been based on a misconception about what we are getting," he says.

The equipment is not all new; indeed, in the days before the schools opened there were frantic efforts to cart things from the old buildings to the new. And the initial package which was to have included three-yearly upgrades of the information and communications technology system by the private contractor was dropped to keep costs down. Now all Falkirk's secondary schools will be kitted out to the same IT specifications under the National Grid for Learning programme.

The other schools will be priorities for capital expenditure, albeit as resources permit, Mr Young emphasises. The upkeep of the PPP schools will be the responsibility of the private contractors and penalty clauses can be invoked by Falkirk if repair and maintenance is unsatisfactory.

The changes mean that more than 100 council janitors, cleaners and catering staff will be employed now by private companies, to the continuing protests of Unison, the main local government union. However, Falkirk has agreed to bear the cost of guaranteeing the departing staff's pay and conditions for five years.

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