Primaries spared 'rip-off' PFI deals

17th March 2006 at 00:00
Private-sector funding method excluded from pound;7 billion rebuilding scheme. William Stewart reports.

Controversial PFI deals will not be used in the Government's pound;7 billion plan to rebuild or refurbish more than half of England's 17,762 primaries by 2022.

The news came as The TES uncovered further problems with the private finance initiative, used by the Treasury to fund much of New Labour's previous school building programmes.

One unhappy head has warned that the taxpayer is being "ripped off" by PFI, as an independent report in his area uncovered a catalogue of failures.

Other schools complain that PFI contracts do not give them the flexibility to extend their hours, while local authorities fear the scheme could leave them owing contractors millions of pounds for buildings they no longer own.

But schools benefiting from the new primary capital programme should be spared similar problems.

The Department for Education and Skills has said it does not intend to use PFI because it expects the projects involved to be too small to be suitable.

Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "It is good news because it means the new schools will be free and unattached rather than being tied into PFI contracts for supply services over which some of our members have found they have very little control."

Nearly 1,000 primaries in the worst condition will be demolished and rebuilt or extensively renovated, with "significant improvements" made to another 8,000.

Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, said: "It will take time, but this Government is committed to reversing the decades of neglect by transforming the primary school estate ... The plan we are putting forward shows we are committed to tearing down and refurbishing those buildings no longer fit for purpose."

But although the Government has committed an extra pound;150 million for 20089 and pound;500m for each of the next two years, it says bringing the total up to pound;7bn by 2022 will be "subject to future spending decisions".

Most primary buildings are more than 25 years old, with 60 per cent built between 1945-1976. Many are post-war prefabricated buildings at the end of their life. Their replacements are likely to be the modern-day equivalent, with the DfES encouraging off-site construction and standardised design to keep costs down.

This follows criticism of the bill for the Government's secondary building programme with at least six lavish new city academies costing more than Pounds 30m each. Sir Cyril Taylor, chairman of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, has said he wants no more "glass palaces" and called for more standard designs (see Future story right).

The new primary schools will be designed to be flexible enough to allow personalised learning. Accommodation will range from small areas for groups of three to six pupils to rooms big enough to hold two or more classes of 30.

Kitchens will have to take account of the drive for healthier eating with the prospect of more pupils eating school meals. High quality information technology and sports facilities are also expected.

Ministers want "green buildings" that can meet tough new environmental standards and be used to teach children about the environment.

The designs will also need to work as community centres, helping to offer 8am-6pm year-round childcare and other services such as breakfast clubs, after-school activities and adult education.

Local authorities are being told to take demographics into account when planning. Primary pupil numbers are expected to continue to decline until 2010 and then increase until at least 2023.

The primary scheme also differs from the secondary one because voluntary-aided schools will be expected to make a 10 per cent capital contribution.

Two or three councils in each region will pilot the scheme, beginning planning this autumn, with funding starting in 20089. The rest will follow a year later.


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