Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

PFI: 21st Century Schools

Terry Gibson

Terry Gibson, head of Newbold Community School, was on holiday in the champagne region of Reims, France, when he heard that the school's PFI project had finally been given the go-ahead.

"I immediately cracked open another bottle," he said. However his enthusiasm

Newbold school in Chesterfield, with 1,100 pupils, had existed for too long with two antiquated buildings half a mile apart - one a dilapidated 1930s structure, the other an emergency post war building shedding its concrete slabs.

The negative impact was constant communications challenges and the loss of 60 to 70 minutes work time every week on inter-site travel.

Because the build is the third of four in a multiple PFI scheme, the consortium of contractor had already been appointed. With no competitive bidding process, Terry was able to work with the architects right from the start, while preparing the output spec.

So, after an initial three-month consultation with teachers, parents and pupils, as well as fact-finding tours of other PFI schools, he got down to designing the school he really wanted.

What he hadn't bargained for however, was how much his vision, and the constraints on it, would change between laying down the blueprint and commencing building works in September 2004.

"I know you can't future proof a school and I'm realistic enough to know you can't have everything on your wish list, but I've still been surprised and frustrated by how quickly ideas move on.

"The whole workforce remodeling agenda emerged after we put together the plan, so it came too late for us to 'design in' proper facilities for teaching support staff. Now, with building already in progress, we are going back to the plans to see what we can cobble together.

"Similarly, what's happening with Every Child Matters, in terms of extending facilities to the community and providing out-of-hours care, is something we didn't take on board at the design stage.

"If we had, we would probably have tried to create more flexible spaces in place of some of the traditional classrooms.

"And while our ICT provision will still be way ahead of many schools, technology is developing so quickly that some of our ideas are already looking out of date before the school is finished.

"With hindsight I think we would have benefited greatly from a day's conference with the LEA, architects, builders and other school leaders and opinion formers, in order to provoke more innovative design ideas. I now realise we were limited to some extent by our own imaginations."

Other hurdles to creating a 'school of the future' included an unexpected DfES bulletin with revised specifications on acoustics and soundproofing. This meant Newbold had to find an additional £1m - money that had to be drawn from other aspects of the build.

"We also felt our hands were tied by building regulations limiting the amount of space we could have per classroom," said Terry.

Affordability gap

"But out biggest problem was with the 'affordability gap' between the unitary charge and the sum of the PFI credits and the school contribution. To narrow the gap, we had to really cut back on some of the things we had hoped for, like more social space for pupils.

"Having said all that, our mood is still very positive and enthusiastic. After all, we are getting a great new school and all the morale-raising benefits that will come with it."

The project has picked up steam since contractors moved on site and Newbold students can now see the steel frame of their emerging new school through the classroom windows of their soon to be demolished one.

Terry has spent the last three half terms and holidays putting together the 220-page document on furniture requirements. "That took us another £2m over budget," he said.

And he is in monthly meetings with the LEA and the consortium, interspersed with workshops on ICT provision, catering and numerous other issues.

Throughout the whole process he has benefited from the support of a full-time PFI liaison officer from Derbyshire LEA, as well as from his deputies who have taken on some of his usual duties in order to free up time.

"I'm sure there will be testing times ahead," said Terry. "Especially when we get to the nitty gritty of fixtures and fittings, not to mention facilities management, but so far our relationship with the consortium has been very good.

"The school's leisure and tourism group has been over to site to have a health and safety lecture and some of the consortium's civil engineers and other staff are keen to get involved in the school to get a better feel for what we are about.

"There are issues that need to be sorted out about the way PFI is funded. The DfES is keen for us to create 'future schools', but until the toolkit increases the amount of credit that can be used, most schools will not be able to afford electronic whiteboards, extra wide corridors and high quality out-of-classroom learning facilities.

"PFI is effective in that it is enabling new schools to be built. However I don't believe it's giving us the schools we should be having for the 21st century."

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