In our September issue headteacher Brian Rossiter described the first part of the PFI route to rebuild his and other schools in the Bassetlaw district – creating the vision for the project and meeting with the bidders. Here he shares his experience of the next steps towards making the vision a reality
In last month’s Secondary Headship, I described the five-year process that took the the ‘Bassetlaw Vision’ from an idea for ‘regeneration through education’ to a set of drawings on paper from bidders and their architects. The next part of the PFI process starts with the award of a title to the ‘winning’ competitor consortium, which becomes known as ‘preferred bidder’ or ‘PB’ to those in the know. The PB and LEA then spend a lengthy period turning the bidder’s promises into the reality of a contract that government, LEA and PB can all sign. Transform Schools, a Balfour Beatty consortium, was selected to negotiate (as PB) for the contract to deliver the ‘Bassetlaw Vision’ for Nottinghamshire County Council. The consortium had produced draft drawings for five secondary schools, one special school, two post-16 centres and two leisure centres. These plans covered two towns across the district of Bassetlaw in North Nottinghamshire.
The atmosphere changes significantly during this part of the PFI procurement process. There is no competition and the PB appears to have the upper hand. They work strictly to rule; namely seeking to reduce the construction and running costs to the minimum while meeting the ‘output specifications’ for the project. In the run-up to the competition between bidders we were able to see a whole range of key features in the outline designs. We had built out problems such as bullying corners and built in many features to support active behaviour management.
Sticking to our guns Our vision statement was extensive and we knew, and still know, what we wanted. The architects work to the direction of the construction company who were going to create these buildings. Design development moved from outline to very detailed drawings that would eventually find their way into the contract. It felt like an unequal battle with the construction arm of the consortium having the upper hand. However, we stuck to our guns. There were a series of meetings where we were tested by the architects. They pressed us on our reasons for a series of principles that we were consistently applying. The shape of the building and the location of offices and faculties were central to our discussions. The positioning of toilets and staffroom all caused us to consider how the building was going to work. We said we were building a school and not an architectural icon. If their proposals ‘worked’ then we were happy to agree to them. If they did not work then it was back to the drawing board or its hi-tech equivalent.
We resolutely stuck to a design that delivered our educational vision for the campus. We devoted a massive amount of time to working on the designs with the architects and our LEA adviser (for that read friend and restraining force for our more creative and expensive ideas). The designs required input from colleagues in school either in a general sense (wish lists from general teaching, students and support staff) or in a very specific and technical sense (PE, technology and science, for example). School colleagues supported the whole design process by generating exciting room layouts that maximised the space they had been allowed. This was important given the limited areas permitted by the government’s space utilisation formula.
The learning curve We learned a lot through this process. We learned to date every plan that we received and then to check it against the previous drawing to ensure that a) rooms and spaces had not disappeared and b) changes we agreed at the previous meeting/s had been included. Yes, offices vanished into the ether and cleaners’ cupboards appeared at regular intervals in the most unusual and inappropriate locations. We lost 68 square metres of school space between one drawing and the next. Some colleagues believe in the conspiracy theory model. Being generous, I personally think it was just cock-up theory in action. Our relationship with the architects was good at the time, and remains so. They tried to meet our needs with one eye over their shoulders on the construction company. Another lesson quickly learned was to write down every problem or issue we found and ensure that we got responses to these notes in meetings. The same went for compromises and agreements we made, with the LEA’s approval of course. If it was not written down it did not exist or happen. We found this out to our cost regarding the width of our corridors, which we felt had been agreed previously. The corridor issue is a classic example of how a school should not act. Before the competition to select PB we felt we had corridors that were wide enough to allow for free circulation of students, and yet were not excessively wide. Indeed, our design requires wide corridors for the 1,650 students and staff to circulate and for behaviour management issues associated with narrow pathways to be ruled out. We currently have a major ‘battery hen’ type syndrome on our overcrowded site. We have seen poorly executed PFI designs where narrow corridors have created massive difficulties; and we did not want our design to repeat the same mistake. In the final days leading up to the preferred bidder selection presentations our drawings had been revised. We found the corridor width had shrunk considerably and was not going back. We have continued to be on the back foot regarding this issue ever since. We were given reassurances that our concerns would be listened to. Many hours have been spent trying to resolve the problem with no movement from the preferred bidder. We received figures from them telling us how much it would cost to reinstate wider corridors but at our expense.
Much credit should go to the LEA at this point. I met with an assistant director and the PFI project manager and after discussing the problem I suggested that the school should invest £260k (the equivalent of two years’ devolved formula capital) in a solution, and they agreed to further the discussion with the PB. They saw the rationale and the health and safety issues very clearly. I have always been a supporter of LEAs; this reinforced my view of their worth. Since that time we have been pushing to get the plans changed and to this date, even though the contract has been signed we await the final drawings. My commitment to finding a solution to this issue has been total.
Collaborative working This stage of the PFI process has not all been about plans and designs. One of the issues I had to address was that of our site management team. Our particular PFI project requires that on contract signature the contractor has to provide a service immediately. This in turn releases the government approved credits (£126m) to the LEA to fund the construction. It is not a requirement of all PFI schemes to commence services immediately and, in fact, the government’s rules have changed since we signed our project agreement. However, it was an option for our scheme which enabled us to receive our credits much earlier than would otherwise have been the case, thus improving affordability. Or to put it another way, to afford things that would otherwise have been out of our reach! In our case this ‘service transfer’ meant that the site management team’s employment was transferred from the LEA to the facilities management company – Haden Building Management. The staff would transfer across under TUPE (see ‘References and further reading’) and the whole process was fraught with difficulty. The essential problem was that of communication. I spent time with my team listening to their concerns and questions and forwarding them to the appropriate LEA officers. Questions on tied housing and pensions, as well as their future relationship with the school, abounded. Most importantly, some could not understand the concept of transferring the service. The LEA people were excellent and found appropriate responses. However, the change was the major issue and my site team were often ‘unstable’ as things took some time to resolve. I kept them up to date with any PFI developments throughout and continually stressed that they were, and still are, part of the Valley School team. Our PFI scheme is somewhat unusual in that it is a precursor of the Building Schools for the Future programme (BSF) and it calls for extensive partnership working. In the style of BSF it will deliver five new secondary schools, one new 3 to 18 special school, two post-16 centres and two replacement leisure centres.
The schools have a history of working closely together. A key feature of our bid for PFI credits had been the development of post-16 opportunities. The schools had worked in consortium with students crossing town to attend AS/A2 lessons. The new model created two centres that were staffed by teachers who commuted to deliver sessions. As well as this, the centres incorporated some of the work of the local North Notts College of Further Education. Students, for example, will be able to take up ‘Access to Nursing’ courses at the FE college and then pick up an AS biology at the centre.
A complex model This model of delivery is highly complex. Extensive negotiations have taken place between the many partners as we have developed such areas as governance, management, funding, curriculum modelling and delivery, quality assurance and staffing systems that stand up to legal and educational scrutiny. All our work forms part of a further legal agreement that will shadow the PFI project agreement for 25 years. We believe that the model we have developed will be flexible enough to be picked up by schools and colleges elsewhere in the country. The major obstacle in setting up these post-16 centres has been ‘regulation’. The local legal services commission (LSC), while being helpful, have been bound by many national constraints that inhibit and effectively discourage this sort of cooperation. In Bassetlaw, however, we see this as a challenge and work to break the rules so that the community can benefit! Developing the leisure centres took me into yet another area of partnership working. The existing district leisure facilities are at the end of their useful life. They are structurally unsound and extremely expensive to run and maintain. I had used this argument to gain support for the idea of maximising the new school facilities for community use. Providing the community with low capital cost replacement leisure facilities, with the district council adding swimming pools and health and fitness suites, seemed to be a solution to local needs.
Our designs reflected all of this. Working with officers on the district council, we looked closely at the positioning of our sports hall and gymnasium. We used the same architects as we tried to link the centre to the school while building in security zoning to keep students and public apart. Key community stakeholders such as the swimming and football clubs were invited to work with the district as the final designs were negotiated. No PFI or ‘education money’ was provided by the LEA for any of this development – it will be financed by the district itself. A proposal was put together and taken to the council for consideration. They saw the value in what was being proposed and put in train a process for signing up to the delivery of these new centres on a similar basis to that of the schools’ PFI scheme.
Behind the scenes During this period I attended a special meeting of the County Council Planning Committee. It had been called to consider the detailed planning applications for all the sites. The Bassetlaw PFI contract could not be signed if any element of the planning process was rejected. This was a cold and technical session. I imagine it was frustrating for those people who had objections to sections of the district-wide project. Our designs for the campus had already addressed many of the concerns of the local community before the plans were lodged and there were no significant planning objections to our proposals. The voting was straightforward, with all the plans approved with occasional qualifiers attached to individual sites. I attended because I felt that I should be aware of any issues that planners and the public might consider relevant and that might affect the whole project. I strongly believe that a head is a community leader. I felt that my public presence signalled my commitment to the project as a whole and my involvement in it. While the schools were working up designs, a huge amount of work was being undertaken in the back offices of County Hall. The project with all its different elements was being pulled together into one overarching project agreement or contract. The details had to be agreed between the school governors, LEA, Transform Schools and Partnerships UK (on behalf of the government). The project agreement is massive. Many hours have been spent negotiating every minute detail from finance to facilities management, contract plans to opening hours for the sites, toilet availability to site security. There are many people at the LEA who have burnt the midnight oil on our behalf as the route to national PFI contract signature was beaten. Even at the last minute detailed issues were raised that required high level interventions to resolve. Unsung heroes, mostly unknown to the school community, beavered away behind the scenes and addressed every issue. They worked extremely hard with unflagging energy and attention to detail to deliver a project agreement that will last stand the test of time – 25 years in our case. They must have had the constitution of oxen to withstand the pressure during those last few weeks and days. The contract was eventually signed in the middle of July, only four months late. When we were told that, finally, the contract had been signed, I felt elated and shattered. After nearly six-and-a-half years’ work no one can now take the ‘Bassetlaw Vision’ away from us. The vision is about delivering facilities, raising standards and raising aspirations in the school and wider population. We are going to get new facilities, both education and leisure, all which support the regeneration of the Bassetlaw district. We have enjoyed working with the architects and contractors in a perverse sort of way. We all wanted the project to succeed to contract signature and financial close. At the same time there were numerous compromises we have all had to make.
Throughout these difficult last few months I have spent much of my time promoting the project. The delays had started to promote a scepticism that was unhelpful. And to all the doubters I always said ‘when, not if, the PFI contract is signed….’ It is now signed and the third article in this series will appear after our exciting new campus is completed in the autumn of 2007, so watch this space.
References: ‘The PFI roller coaster’, Brian Rossiter, Secondary Headship, September 2005. DTI Employment Relations: a guide to the regulations on TUPE (Transfer of Undertakings Protection of Employment).
Building Schools for the Future www.teachernet.gov.uk/management/resourcesfinanceandbuilding/funding/bsf/.
Check out the ‘Exemplar Designs’ section for futuristic ideas from different architectural partnerships.
Transform Schools – led by Balfour Beatty – www.transformschools.co.uk.