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Tuesday, 3 April, 2001, 18:32 GMT 19:32 UK
Heads concerned by private finance
School dinners
School dinners could be put out to contract
By BBC News Online's Sean Coughlan

Head teachers in Norfolk have expressed their "grave concern" at a private finance initiative scheme for schools.

The local education authority is considering a scheme which would see 90m released for spending on schools - and the contracting out of services such as catering and maintenance to the private sector for the next 25 years.

But a letter signed by 25 head teachers has warned that such contracts would lessen their control over how their schools were run.

The heads also argue that there could be a "conflict of interest" between private contractors running services for profit and the needs of schools.

Ralph Masterson, head of West Flegg Middle School, Great Yarmouth, says that there are many unanswered questions about the long-term implications of involving private businesses in schools.

Among the outstanding concerns, he says, would be whether heads would have less flexibility over how they used their budgets to buy in services and if they could discontinue contracts if they proved unsatisfactory.

And he says that it raises the prospect of contractors using school facilities for other profit-making businesses, such as using the kitchens for private catering or hiring out sports facilities.

'Opportunity'

But Norfolk County Council's chair of education, John Holmes, says such concerns are premature - and that nothing will be imposed on schools that they do not want.

"The opportunity is huge, it could allow us to renovate, repair and replace schools. We would never otherwise get that amount of money to do that much work," said Mr Holmes.

"This would be many times more than we've ever had before and we could end up with super-modern schools," he said.

Addressing concerns over schools being stuck with poor services, he said there would be penalty and enforcement clauses to make sure that services were maintained at a satisfactory level.

The proposals would affect 86 schools in the eastern areas of Norfolk, including around Great Yarmouth.

And Mr Holmes said that heads would be part of the process of considering the appropriateness of such a scheme and any contracts would need their approval.

This consultation and drawing up of detailed contracts is likely to take until mid-2002, with the council talking to each individual board of governors.

But before any contracts could be put out to tender, the local authority's proposals would need to be approved by boards of governors, which can choose to remain outside the private finance project.

And if a majority of schools choose to opt out of the private finance deal, there would be doubts about how attractive contracts would be to potential bidders.

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24 Jul 98 | Education
Firms keen to run city schools
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