Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

PFI: Are we moving in the right direction?

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The private finance initiative (PFI) has come quite a way since Sir John Colfox School in Dorset opened its doors to 1,020 secondary pupils in September 1999. But with Building Schools for the Future on the long-term agenda, have the government and local authorities really taken on board the early lessons of PFI? Angela Spencer reports.

Many school leaders will remember the dark days of the 1980s and '90s when the national school building programme had almost ground to a halt. In most cases the only way to make the case for new build was structural emergency or vastly increased pupil numbers.

In PFI, the government seems to think it has found the solution to procuring new and refurbished schools, with sharply reduced central costs.

By the turn of the millennium around 20 PFI contracts had been signed, with Sir John Colfox school the first scheme to complete.

Today there are no less than 59 PFI projects on the DfES's project list, most of them for multiple schools and the number of schemes continues to grow.

The fact that private investment is part and parcel of the government's Building Schools for the Future programme suggests that, for the next few years, PFI is schools' primary recourse for new facilities.

And after gaining a mixed initial reaction - SHA and the Audit Commission both expressed early concerns about lack of quality - an increasing number of schools are now enjoying the benefits new school buildings can bring.

Teething problems

Malcolm Noble, co-author of the SHA book Managing a PFI Project (September 2003) says diplomatically that lessons learned from the early PFI pioneers have helped "put the difficult years behind us".

Malcolm, who is also head of PFI-built Bexleyheath School in outer London and a member of SHA Council, says: "There were two overwhelming problems associated with the first wave of education PFI projects.

"One was that headteachers believed that if they gave a general specification of what they wanted, private firms bidding for a contract would be innovative in their response.

"What it meant in practice was that they often got off-the-peg schemes with no real understanding of learning in schools. To compound the problem, many LEAs plumped for the cheapest schemes rather than those that offered best value for money.

"Experience has taught us that school leaders should leave nothing to chance. They should be involved in the design of their schools right from the start to ensure quality and fitness for purpose.

"Consequently, we are now seeing an improvement in aesthetics and architectural design, as well as internal content that is more relevant to modern ways of learning, such as flexible working spaces and social areas.

"The other area of difficulty was in the management of facilities. Many early contracts were very inflexible and bureaucratic, with school leaders labouring under the misapprehension that, now a private company was responsible for maintenance, all they had to do was worry about teaching and learning.

"Of course the reality is that while an external company is managing the running of the building, that company needs in turn to be managed by the school leader - another lesson which is now being taken on board as PFI changes the nature of school leadership."

Hands tied by budget

Some problems remain however. Malcolm Noble's co-author believes the key issues to be addressed lie mainly with the DfES.

Malcolm Trobe, who is head of Malmesbury School in Wiltshire, a PFI project that opened in 2002, says: "There is no doubt that partnerships are trying to be more innovative in the design of new schools, but their hands are often tied by very tight budgets and restrictive building bulletins, such as those dictating the maximum floor area of classrooms.

"Until the government increases the amount of PFI credits to help bridge the notorious 'affordability gap', that is the difference between the unitary charge and the sum of the PFI credits and the school's contribution, schools will continue to struggle in turning their imaginative ideas into reality.

"Another inherent danger associated with a small budget is that we end up with a Jaguar car, but without enough petrol to run it properly. Funding should not stop at a building, but should also allow for ICT, interactive white boards and other 21st century materials that make the most of the new learning environment."

Having said that, Malcolm Trobe is convinced that PFI is on an upward spiral, largely as a result of the experience gained by heads, LEAs and contractors over the last six years.

"Schools are learning all the time by going to look at completed PFI schemes and talking to other heads.

"LEAs too are becoming more experienced, and therefore smoother, in working with private providers, often employing dedicated PFI officers or teams.

"We're not there yet with PFI, but it is improving. The bottom line is that there are thousands of youngsters who are now educated in far better facilities than they were several years ago - and that's down to PFI."

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