Stuck in a state of disrepair

8th June 2001 at 01:00
The Government has poured money into building maintenance. So why are schools still being forced into DIY and working bees? Jon Slater investigates

Every few weeks, Barry Hope, caretaker at Haydon Bridge school, Northumberland, has to climb in and unblock the 30-year-old coal boilers which power the school's heating system. To reach into the back, where the spent fuel collects, he has to stretch so far in that only his feet stick out.

"It's even worse for Ray - he's only 5ft 4in - he disappears completely. They're obsolete so every time something goes wrong they have to make a new part," he said.

The heating broke down four times in eight days last winter, said David Thompson, the headteacher.

"It got so bad that I was writing to county hall to predict when it was going to break down. Luckily, it coincided with warm spells otherwise we would have had to close the school."

It is not just the boilers which need replacing at Haydon Bridge. The school was audited two years ago to find out what improvement work needed to be done. There was a lot. The prospective bill to modernise the heating system, renovate the 30-year-old toilets, fix rotting window frames and doors, provide proper car parking space and much more came to a whopping pound;990,000.

The school has an annual budget for maintenance of just pound;6,500 - and even that is an increase of pound;3,000 on last year's sum. Although the education authority has promised that the system will be replaced before next winter, the school still relies on its imagination to alleviate more mundane problems. While a group of pupils will be heading for Africa to climb Mount Kilimanjaro during the school's "activity week", many of their classmates will be staying at school to paint their own classrooms with paint supplied free of charge by a local firm.

"Northumberland has been underfunded for years. We really have been strapped for cash and the priorities have been maintaining staff and resources. Repairs have had to be cut back," said Mr Thompson This sort of do-it-yourself endeavour was supposed to become a thing of the past under a Labour government. Yet it is now four years since the party won power promising to tackle the "pound;3 billion backlog" of school repairs. So what happened?

At the time, Labour was convinced that they could harness the private sector to improve schools. The 1997 manifesto stated that: "Publicprivate partnerships will improve the condition of school buildings." But creating partnerships with the private sector has proved a bigger job than expected.

The chosen method of attracting private cash is the public finance initiative (PFI) which was introduced by the Conserv-atives. But this is useful only for large-scale projects, such as building a new school or major refurbishment work. Primary schools often have to group together to take advantage of the scheme.

These limitations and the difficulties in attracting private-sector partners and overcoming hostility among LEAs and teachers to the principle of PFI meant that, during the Government's first three years, only seven PFI contracts were signed. Labour points out that this total has since risen to 31 but even so, PFI projects have still contributed only pound;810 million towards capital work - a sixth of the pound;5 billion the Government has invested since 1997.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said:

"A PFI project required so much administration.

"Heads who have become involved in these projects have ound that there is an enormous amount of work involved. Smaller projects are just not viable because of the start-up costs."

Yet despite the small impact of PFI, Labour's spending record on school buildings and equipment is impressive. This year alone, it has spent pound;2.2bn on capital work in schools, which is more than three times what was spent during the Conservative government's last year in power. By the end of this year, pound;7.5bn will have been invested in capital projects in England's schools since 1997.

Labour claims that more than 17,000 of England's 24,000 schools have benefited. So why, given this investment - which Labour claims is the biggest since the immediate post-war years - are schools like Haydon Bridge still having to make do and mend?

Some schools have missed out because most of the money has been spent on big projects or on eye-catching initiatives such as replacing outside toilets.

Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: "I do think funding has been too targeted. Only LEAs really know school building needs. The bidding arrangements have favoured some authorities at the expense of others. Its not how much you need but how good you are at bidding. The allocation formula is a bit of a mess."

Ministers responded last year by introducing a capital grant for all schools to help them keep up to date with routine maintenance. This year, it will be worth pound;28,000 for an average secondary and almost pound;10,000 for an average primary. Although, as the experience of Haydon Bridge shows, schools in worse-off local authorities can put the money towards teachers or books if they feel it would be better spent in those areas.

"The Government has undoubtedly put in a great deal of money," said David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Headteachers.

"But it's got one heck of a way to go. You can't put right a decade of under-investment in four years. They are going to have to continue to invest a huge amount in school buildings."

Labour's manifesto pledge of a further pound;8.5bn for school buildings and equipment during this year and the next two - including 650 new schools - shows just how much more needs to be done to tackle years of neglect.

Labour advisers are refusing to promise that even this sum will be enough to bring buildings up to scratch. Some schools may have to wait until the next election before they get enough cash to make much-needed repairs.

Mr Thompson said: "Our problems with the heating are probably exceptional, but otherwise I think we're fairly typical of schools in Northumberland.

"Like so many schools across the country we need huge investment. We can do our best to help ourselves but we need real capital to bring the school up to the standard of "education, education, education".

"You're talking about at least a 16-year backlog - a lack of investment in our school buildings over a generation."

It is typical of the way in which Labour targeted money on eye-catching enterprises that Haydon Bridge does have a substantial sum aimed at specific building projects. Having won sports college status two years ago, it raised pound;100,000 from local business which was matched by government funding. But this cash will not improve the toilets or replace rotting doors - it will be spent on building a new state-of-the-art gymnasium "That's the cream. Now someone's got to provide the real bread and butter - the boilers, the painting and the car parks," said Mr Thompson.

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