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Last Updated: Thursday, 9 August 2007, 09:25 GMT 10:25 UK
MPs warn over 45bn schools plan
school building work
The government says it is improving procedures
The government should take stock of plans to rebuild England's secondary schools before rushing into a series of costly mistakes, MPs have warned.

The Commons Education Committee says there are risks linked to the method chosen to fund half the 45bn rebuild - the private finance initiative (PFI).

Three PFI schools are closing because of a lack of pupils, but councils are still contracted to pay the bills.

The government said it had learnt lessons and was improving procurement.

Long contracts

The report - Sustainable schools: Are we building schools for the future? - says: "We are aware of three instances where PFI funded schools have closed or are closing, leaving the relevant authorities with continuing financial commitments."

The question whether BSF is the best way to spend 45bn on education must be kept under regular review
Committee chairman Barry Sheerman

This is because PFI building and maintenance contracts, through which the majority of schools are to be rebuilt under the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme, can last 20 or 30 years.

The schools are East Brighton College of Media Arts, Bishops Park College in Clacton, Essex and Balmoral High School in Belfast.

In Brighton the local authority had to pay 4.5m to release itself from the contract.

In Belfast the local council is committed to paying 370,000 a year for the next 20 years and the Clacton school which opened in 2002 cost 25m.

Behind schedule

The committee says ensuring that a contract covers all the possibilities that might arise in the 25 years or so it is set to run is "virtually impossible".

Under the programme's original timetable, 100 schools would have been built by September 2007 but only a handful are likely to be ready.

The MPs highlight problems with the procurement process - which is likely to be run by head teachers and council officials.

One witness to the committee, David Kester of the Design Council, said: "Half the problem we have here is that this is the first big capital project that most clients have ever run at this level."

The committee questions whether spending 45bn on "hardware" - school buildings - rather than "software" - people and practices - is right, when the crucial factor in improving attainment is the educational experience.

It says it is not clear what education should look like in the 21st Century and asks the government to provide a "clear statement" of national ambitions.

'Questionable'

The report also says that once resources have been provided to areas with low levels of attainment, investment in buildings could be reviewed.

"That might be the point at which BSF could be drawn to a close and a different approach to capital and other investment in schools could be adopted," the report concludes.

Committee chairman Barry Sheerman said the project was hugely ambitious and welcome but said: "The question whether BSF is the best way to spend 45bn on education must be kept under regular review."

The director of the British Council for School Environments, Ty Goddard, who contributed to the inquiry, said the report was a clear call for leadership from the government.

Children's Minister Kevin Brennan said: "We welcome the committee's recognition that we are right to take the time to get it right and learn lessons from the early stages.

'Lessons learned'

"We have always been clear that we would develop and adapt the programme so that's why we will continue to put in place a quicker, smarter and more efficient procurement and planning system to deliver these projects on time and on budget."

Tim Byles, chief executive of Partnerships for Schools, the government agency responsible for delivering Building Schools for the Future said lessons had been learned from early PFI schemes.

He said robust planning over pupil numbers was an integral part of any local authority's preparation for BSF.

"Before funding is even granted, authorities have to be very clear on their projected pupil places for a 10 year period for the whole of their estate."

Liberal Democrat schools spokesman Stephen Williams said ministers must not fall into the trap of believing that flagship schools alone would transform educational standards.

"Pupils need inspiring teachers and a relevant curriculum as well."

The Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) said pupils and teachers should be given more say in the design of their schools.




VIDEO AND AUDIO NEWS
Newly built secondary schools that have closed



SEE ALSO
Delays hit school building scheme
15 Dec 06 |  Education
Many new-built schools 'mediocre'
03 Jul 06 |  Education
Schools work 'a missed chance'
25 May 04 |  Scotland
Cash 'not just to renew schools'
23 Mar 05 |  Education
School rebuilding pledge queried
02 Dec 04 |  Education

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