Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

PFI: Learning process

Students

SHA members are still giving mixed reports on PFI - especially inflexibility in adapting contracts to respond to government initiatives - but on the whole, things seem to be improving. Even contractors and local authorities appear to be learning from experience.

For SHA member Philomena Marshall, PFI presented an opportunity to design out some of the problems at Sandhill View School in Sunderland.

She addressed bullying by creating year team areas, with every year group having its own entrance and interconnecting social areas.

She reduced anti-social behaviour in the corridors by designing bright, open staircases with security cameras and nowhere for truants to hide.

She equipped all teaching rooms with internet access and at least six network terminals, and all curriculum areas with whiteboards and digital projectors.

Less than a year after the new building opened in 2002, Ofsted inspectors reported that Sandhill View had gone from a school with a long history of serious weaknesses and a poor local reputation to a highly successful, oversubscribed, award-winning establishment.

"PFI hasn't brought about all our improvements and increase in popularity," says Philomena. "But it has contributed significantly to our improved status and standing in the community."

While no facilities management contract is without problems, her recent secondment to a non-PFI school was a stark reminder of life without.

"At the school where I am now, I and a number of my staff seem to be dealing with repairs and premises issues an awful lot of the time," she says.

"When I look at the comparatively minor complaints about maintenance these days at Sandhill View, I realise just how lucky we are."

Costly alterations

But not all school leaders are as happy with their PFI lot.

Kay Taylor "had reservations" about PFI as deputy head at Sir John Colfox School in Dorset, when it became the first ever PFI school in 1999.

"Now I'm head, I have an even more jaundiced view," she says.

Not only has she found it costly to add to and alter the school building, she has had a fruitless six-year battle to change the initial facilities management contract.

"We are currently making adaptations to the building to bring in vocational courses in construction and house-building.

"We are having to pay profit to the builder involved, but also an additional 16 per cent to our PFI partner for managing the project."

The school's quality monitoring system for service level agreements was also poorly put together and is very unsatisfactory, she feels.

"If we score the contractor down for not cleaning the windows, for example, this is balanced out by the fact that the lift has been maintained in working order - so we don't get anywhere.

"Of course our school building is far better than what we had before - we no longer have to evacuate mobile classrooms in windy weather - but I do feel as though we have been built into a corner. On the whole I would prefer not to be in a PFI school."

Lessons for the LEA

As the PFI debate rumbles on, it becomes apparent that leaders of earlier PFI schools are more likely to be disaffected, while leaders of recent PFIs are generally more contented with outcomes.

Derbyshire LEA officer Kevin Firth puts the improvement down to the increased experience of all stakeholders, together with improved central support.

"In the early days, projects had many new problems to be resolved," he says. "Now, much of the procurement is supported by standard documentation, which has been tested in the market.

"This means project teams are able to focus more on the key service and design issues relating to schools.

"The DfES has worked to help improve schemes. The area of building per pupil has increased and there is now detailed design guidance on different types of school buildings that may work well in different locations.

"These two factors have helped inform the design process and hopefully will lead to even better new school buildings in future."

Kevin says his LEA recognises the need for dedicated project management teams, if not for individual projects then certainly for multiple schemes.

Contractors' view

Contractors too say they are learning from experience. Even companies with vast experience in PFI and facilities management contracts for hotels and hospitals have been forced to rewrite the book where schools are concerned.

Jarvis contracts manager Mark Driver admits that in the early days some contractors were so keen to win contracts that they promised the earth without giving enough thought to how they would manage it.

"Fortunately, experience has taught them to be more realistic about what works and what doesn't," he says.

"The important difference with schools is that they are populated by hundreds of children and that makes all the difference. You can't be regimented; you have to be flexible.

"A classic facilities management example will include willful damage. If I were to bill a school for every bit of willful damage that takes place, it would fill up all my time.

"At Sandhill View, the head is prepared to bill the parents of youngsters who have vandalised school property. This is an indication of how we can listen to each other and adapt our work in the best interests of the school."

A PFI project is never going to be an easy ride but Stuart Ash, head of Chapel-en-le-Frith High School in Derbyshire, believes school leaders - perhaps more than any other professionals - should have confidence in their management and negotiating abilities.

"Have high expectations but be prepared to compromise," he says. "Be thorough - do your research - but know there will always be things that are missed.

"Don't let your PFI partners underestimate you and, above all, don't underestimate yourself. It can be fatal."

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