A private finance initiative (PFI) project can transform a school. Headteacher Brian Rossiter describes the final stages of his school’s project, the initial aim of which was to turn his school into an educational establishment for the future

Our PFI story has three parts. Previously in Secondary Headship I have described the chase by different consortia, all competing for the possibility of negotiating a contract with my local authority (LA). In September and October 2005 I wrote describing the story from the award to a consortium of ‘preferred bidder’ status (PB), to the reality of a contract that government, LA and PB were all able to sign (see references).

Part 3 takes us from contract signing to our move into the new facilities, with the contracting consortium delivering a service for the next 27 years. I write this article, having spent the last term in our new facilities. What follows is a personal account of the final part of this story and this project.

Transform Schools, a Balfour Beatty consortium, hold the contract to deliver the ‘Bassetlaw vision’ for Nottinghamshire County Council. They were contracted to deliver and service five secondary schools, one special school, two post-16 centres and two leisure centres. These facilities cover two towns across the district of Bassetlaw in North Nottinghamshire.

Unspoken agenda
Contract signing (2005) was a milestone in this project. From that point on we have worked with our partners to ensure that a) we get all that is specified in the contract and b) as much as possible on top. We all knew this to be the unspoken agenda – all being contractors, LA and school. We were all doing the same thing. But the wonderful thing has been the personal and working relationships between all the partners. I have always said that, as a school, we will put as much time and energy as we can into realising the project. By doing so we will get the school we want, rather than a school that does not meet our expectations.

As part of this ‘investment’ we had a 24-hour rule – a plan arrives for checking, or a decision is required, and, within 24 hours, it has been meticulously checked, signed off and returned to the project office. This prompt response, attention to detail, and explicit voicing of needs, was much appreciated by the contractor. Along with a detailed vision statement, we knew, and were able to express, what we wanted. All this led to a high level of trust, especially between the construction team and the school.

A small team of school staff were involved in delivering the project as I tried to ensure that the rest of the school was concentrating on the ‘core focus’ of the school – the raising standards agenda. Beyond occasional design workshops for staff and students (the year and school councils were really helpful here) specialist staff were asked for design requests only when their input was required.

Science, technology and PE faculty coordinators were given a couple of hours of extra non-contact time on the timetable to pay them back for the extra time they were having to devote to the project. I was clear that they should not be put in a position where their ‘day job’ suffers as a result of the new build. Maria, (deputy head) and Adele (support services leader) were the two colleagues who worked with me on the project during the 24 frantic months from contract signing to handover of the new facilities. Each had a specific role, with me taking an overview of the whole project.

Controlling costs
The new school and adjoining leisure centre were to be built on the site of our car park and playing field (once demolished, our old site will host a variety of sporting facilities). At the end of May 2006 the construction team moved on to the field and the first sod was turned. They had 18 months to complete work. I had always assumed that they were given plans to build from, and that they simply followed them to handover.

This was far from the truth, as we soon found out. Architects slowly fed plans, in random order at times, to the builders, who then passed them to us for checking. Liaison meeting after meeting took place, as we challenged the plans if they did not meet the requirements of either, or both, the contract and the school’s vision statement. The construction team came across design issues that, if implemented, would have cost them a lot of money. We negotiated hard, very hard at times, and found amicable solutions that resolved the issues.

It would have been very easy for costs to the school or the local authority to mount up. Monthly design meetings often resulted in changes to plans, or modifications to the services provided. For example, the original designs for the science area would, if built, have produced two ‘unworkable’ labs. This was spotted, and the area redesigned by the construction team. In this case, the contractor agreed to bear the costs. In another case, we felt it was necessary to have a secure door between the visitor reception and the school. After much discussion, the school agreed to fund the extra security equipment.

All this work had an associated paper trail to ensure that the LA had control over all the costs, and we all had an audit trail against which to measure completed works. To support all of this, the LA had a dedicated PFI office working extremely efficiently throughout the project to both help us and to monitor costs and project delivery. This team, the dedicated PFI project manager, and LA backroom staff kept the whole project on track.

Each formal monthly meeting was followed by an extensive walk around the site. It was on these walks that we could start to visualise what the end-product would look like. They also helped us as we spotted ‘mistakes’, or things suddenly appearing around the building. We could also be shown potential ‘problems’ by the site team, who would then advise us of ways of resolving the problem, often at no cost to the school. Similarly, they would identify parts of the building that were causing them problems and we could agree to tweak our requirements. Unlike other PFI schemes I was aware of, in our case the relationship between constructor and end-user client was professional and superb. Ours was a win-win relationship, where we all benefited from our partnership working.

Controlling costs: top tips

Do:

  • stick to achieving the aspirations recorded in your vision statement
  • ask questions
  • ensure all decisions made are recorded
  • ensure that costs for modifications are given (including nil costs) and the source of the funding for each modification is agreed
  • walk the site, whenever possible, preferably with the site agent/construction manager
  • work closely with the LA.

Do not:

  • assume that the construction team know best
  • assume that someone else is checking the details on your behalf.

Fitting out the new building
As the building rose from the ground we were very aware that we had to plan for the move (‘decant’) from the old school buildings into the new. I was advised to think about the issue as being similar to moving house then multiplying it by ‘X’. This was far from reality. The LA had previously decided that no loose furniture (desks, chairs, shelving, etc) was to be included in the contract. Under BSF it is unlikely that schools will have to cope with this issue (ICT is also included within BSF contracts).

The school had responsibility to kit out the new facilities with furniture, with support from a local authority officer. This produced many issues for our team to handle. From earlier meetings, it was clear that the PFI contractor had to give approval for all existing furniture that was to be taken into the new building. If we took existing classroom chairs across to the new site that damaged the floor coverings, we would be responsible for repairs. So began a massive audit of what we had, what was acceptable to take across, and what would need to be bought. Using an LA grant, we replaced every classroom chair, desk, table, and almost every other piece of loose furniture in the public areas, in the new school. Offices were re-equipped, as were storage areas, mostly from existing furniture.

The learning centre was an interesting challenge. This is a dominant feature in our new school. The proposed shelving, furniture, and so on, provided by the contractor was quite frankly, dull. We negotiated a deal to source shelving, etc, to the value that they had allocated to the centre. We used a different supplier, with the effect being well worth the time and energy spent seeking the alternative. This attention to detail, in this case ‘style’, is something that has been present throughout our part of the project. The LA decant grant by no means met all the costs that were required. As part of our long-term planning we had been ‘saving’ hard in advance of the move to pay for the furniture and equipment required. We had to make some difficult decisions, but were able to ensure that the public face of the school, seen by students and visitors, was of a modern, cohesively designed and well equipped school.

ICT delivery was also an essential part of our planning. My network services team were excellent throughout this project. They took our requirements, including that the school be wireless rich in every area, and designed a solution to meet these demands. An initial plan for wireless access points was thrown away and the number of access points doubled as a result of on-site surveys. Fortunately, we had originally designed in enough data points around the school to allow us to do this. To add extra data points at that stage would have been prohibitively expensive. We had a requirement that every teaching space should have an interactive whiteboard. We bought these in advance, with most being transferred from walls in the old school. However, we had purchased integrated boards that have a projector on a boom sticking out of the board. This boom removes the need for traditional projector poles coming out of the ceiling and the associated wiring.

What we did not foresee was the PFI contractor saying that the walls were not strong enough to support the boards/boom projectors in many of the classrooms (plasterboard stud walling). Meeting after meeting took place, as we struggled to find an acceptable solution. Figures for fitting these boards, starting at £3,000 a board, were thrown around, with an eventual figure of £300 leading to their installation. It was yet another example of our persistence paying off and not accepting the first solution provided by the ‘professionals’.

Security is at the centre of our design. Design and construction had produced a secure site, as far as intruders were concerned. Our two receptions allowed us to control the entrance and exit to the school facilities. Our students talked about the need to feel more secure within the new building. We installed a CCTV package across the school that passively surveyed the potential problem areas where they said they may feel vulnerable. 

Fitting out the building: top tips

Do:

  • in the initial design stage ensure you have an extremely detailed ICT plan that covers the position of every data and power point
  • ensure that BT or your phone/internet providers is contracted and online to provide the appropriated services
  • get the written agreement of the contractor if you are moving existing equipment
  • keep walking the site, whenever possible.

Do not:

  • assume that outside agencies or contractors will do what they say.

Make the move When my deputy head gained promotion in another school, I was lucky, in that my other deputy delayed his retirement for a term to lead efficiently the decant process into the new build. He worked with the removal company to ensure that boxes were available for staff to pack during most of the term, removal people were available to pack/unpack for teachers and support staff at known times, and that everything ended up in the right place, with minimal stress to the school team.

At the same time Adele, the support services leader, ensured that the furniture suppliers delivered and set up offices and classrooms. She worked with network services, ensuring that the highly complex ICT systems were in place to support teaching and administrative functions of the school. These two stalwarts ensured that the decant programme was delivered, and we were able to start work on day one of the new term.

We have involved our students throughout the project. During the term before we moved we did some further work with them to establish the behaviours we expected of our students – behaviours and expectations based on their input were recorded. An extended tutorial period took place where all groups worked on a ‘charter’ of these expectations. It applies to all concerned in our community. We took this to school council for final approval, and also produced a pocket guide for every member of our school community, with maps and four simple and clear expectations for all of us.

At Valley we: ‘walk on the left, talk quietly, listen and show respect’. In our old buildings, some of our students had some poor learned behaviours acquired from older students. In the new facilities there were none of these. It was new to everyone, and this was an opportunity to make explicit what we felt to be acceptable behaviour.

In December 2007 we were allowed to have eight extra closure days to allow us to move in. As well as packing, considerable effort was put into developing display work in classrooms and corridors around the school. Student work packs were produced (paper and internet) and mock exams for Y9 and Y11 took place during these transition days. We had guided tours for half-year groups to ensure that, when we started on the first day of the new term, hardly any time would be lost inducting students into the site.

Having been in the new school for a term, our sharply focused ‘new start’ approach has proved invaluable, with all my staff colleagues supporting the establishment of our joint expectations regarding our behaviours. Teaching and learning was fully reactivated from the start of term, with almost all in the community settling into our new systems and procedures. 

Make the move: top tips

Do:

  • Have a single person/small team in school charged with the decant process.
  • Create a detailed decant plan in partnership with the removal company and others.
  • Continue to keep focused on the detail.
  • Involve students in the process.
  • Treat the move as an opportunity to have a new start.
  • Task a team to the issue of display.
  • Keep teachers, support staff and parents fully informed.

Do not:

  • assume contractors will follow your, or even their own, timelines.
  • allow students/parents to consider extra closure days as extra ‘holiday’.
  • ignore concerns of staff – communication resolves many issues and dispels rumours.
  • ignore the day job throughout the whole process.

Regeneration through education
Our exciting new campus was completed on time. We have been in our wonderful new facilities for a term. The building works for us. There are a few teething troubles, but nothing that is not being resolved. We now have to work in a different way, with our facilities management team provided by the PFI contractor. This team is employed by someone else, but regarded as an integral part of the Valley School team. PFI and BSF force us to work in different ways, but they free schools to focus on our core purpose of education and the raising of standards.

My tag line for the project has always been ‘regeneration through education’. The new facilities, both education and leisure, support the regeneration of the Bassetlaw district. The ‘buzz’ in the community is deafening.

We were inspected by Ofsted during this last term. They reflected on the new building’s ‘light and open spaces’ and commented that ‘the school is well placed to improve further’. What an understatement – we have learned that, when we have a vision, we can deliver.

Our vision is about delivering facilities, raising standards and aspirations in the school, and wider population. We now turn to capitalising on the delivery of our vision.

References and further information

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