System Failure

13th June 2003 at 01:00
I was accused of being a dinosaur last week. I've been called much worse things, but what made this particularly galling was who was calling me names.

It was a consultant from a company that's tendering for a PFI (private finance initiative) contract in our local education authority. He's not just any consultant, he's an education consultant, the first appointed by his employer, William Sykes Offers You More.

They used to just be W Sykes Ltd, an engineering company making parts for land mines and electric prods. But the days of simple manufacture have come to an end and they are looking to diversify into the public sector.

Shipbuilders, defence contractors, railway companies, road builders, everyone's now an expert in education. If the Trotter brothers ever wheeled their Robin Reliant out of retirement, you could be certain it would have "educational consultant" written down the side. You might have seen these consultants on your patch, visiting schools like new landlords taking a look at a dodgy bunch of tenants. Mine almost seemed surprised that the place was full of children.

Of course, he was joking about my dinosaur status (or at least he was smiling when he said it). But that could have been the conversation he was having on his mobile or one of the text messages he read during his PowerPoint presentation. All these ways of communicating and he couldn't hear anything we said.

I asked him about how the ICT services for our primary school would be affected if his company won the contract. Of course his company would be looking to invest in technology as part of the upgrading of buildings, he said. You'd have to be a dinosaur not to want the best ICT equipment.

And if we looked under the 30-year management deal section, we could see the provision for a modern communications infrastructure and a competitively priced management fee.

So could we drill holes for cables in what would become their building? What happens if the contractors drop out, as has happened elsewhere? How would this fit with our other support contracts? Will computer and administration systems be foisted on us? What happens if their building plans clash with our plans for a wireless network? Will outside organisations have access to our equipment, particularly in schools where facilities will be hired out?

The dinosaur asked, but the man buying Jurassic Park didn't want to answer.

If we had problems a call centre in Gateshead was open day and night, he said. It was so sophisticated it didn't even need people to answer the phones - every answer you could need would be available through voice recognition. And for a modest fee they would hire us a specially trained native Geordie, which was a basic requirement to use the service.

Mrs Gatsby, the headteacher, normally supports the local authority. But even she seemed lukewarm about this smarm-offensive, particularly as she was being treated as though she had never seen the bottom line of a budget before.

I think what had really got her worried was the announcement by another of the tendering companies that she "would not need a key to the school". When anyone tells you you don't "need" something, it's often worth asking why they need it but you don't. Because in this case it really meant she wouldn't be allowed to have the key to her own school.

The new caretaker, who would be the employee of the contractor and not the council, would have the key.

I can see why many local councils are attracted to these schemes; they give them the type of cash windfall that lets them build new classrooms and modernise equipment straightaway. The private contractor gives them the kind of lump sum they cannot get out of the council taxpayers.

But it's not like winning the lottery. It's more like a very complicated mortgage in which schools are not really sure about how the repayment will work out.

Guess who'll find out the hard way? The dinosaurs.

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