Surplus places and rotting and inadequate building stock was a common experience for schools in the late 20th century. Here, Brian Rossiter, head of the Valley School in Worksop, Notts, describes the arduous PFI route he took to rebuild his school and other dilapidated schools in his district

Private Finance Initiative (PFI) is a long and tortuous procurement process for new or refurbished schools. There are numerous articles and books on the topic, including the very informative Secondary Heads’ Association (SHA) booklet Managing A PFI Project by Malcolm Noble and Malcolm Trobe. However, although they describe the theory and formal processes involved, they don’t prepare you for the reality of the activity.

The vision
Having been involved in preparations for an LEA PFI scheme in Kirklees, I was familiar with the initiative and aware that if we were to seek a rebuild for my dilapidated school then PFI was the only real course the government would allow us to follow.

In 1999, I proposed a scheme that would rebuild all the nine secondary schools across the Bassetlaw district. I believed that there was little chance of getting a single new school and that to think big would bring on board the major bidders and allow us to develop a ‘Bassetlaw vision’ of ‘regeneration through education’.

I wanted to include the opportunity to improve ageing district leisure facilities and maximise the use of the education buildings, sports halls etc for community use. I strongly believed in the need to offer the regeneration opportunity to all the secondaries in the hope that they would all want to be involved. In 2001 Nottinghamshire appointed a visionary and dedicated director of education and so began the roller coaster that is PFI.

Seeking support
There are copious resource materials that outline the PFI process. They are full of acronyms and technical papers and processes. What they don’t tell you is that when taking on PFI you need lots of stamina! From the outset I had to take on a new role; that of evangelist and diplomat.

There was considerable resistance to PFI among the local elected members (councillors) and many of the points they made were justified. However, as this was the only way to procure new schools, I found myself in the role of diplomat, shuttling between meetings with local councillors and interest groups, area education officers and school staff. All this activity was to support the LEA as they sought council backing for a bid to the DfES. During these early days there were many conversations with sceptics who never believed we would stand a chance of delivering the anticipated building stock. However, they all supported the need to try.

The network of colleagues that forms the Bassetlaw Area Secondary Headteachers (BASH) group is excellent. We meet monthly and work collaboratively on a variety of projects. The early days of PFI, where the director of education laid out her vision and then engaged with us to deliver the initial bid for PFI credits to the DfES, were strengthened by our joint resolve. These times were difficult. We were investing energy in a bidding system that might not have been successful. Nothing new in that, but this time the stakes were extremely high.

Collaborative working
In bidding for credits we thought we had an advantage; the strength of our case for rebuilds, the resolution of many school and LEA issues and our wide and collaborative partnership all sent very positive messages to the DfES. Our LEA was proactive in its approach to the DfES and the advice received was incorporated in our bid. One crucial reflection was that we should phase our project over two bidding rounds, as the amount required was so great.

This was the first of a very difficult series of discussions where our joint resolve was tested. We agreed to split the district into two areas based on centres of population and submit both for evaluation. Beyond the ‘big picture’ discussions there was endless background information to prepare and this highlighted the value of collaborative working.

There is a man at the DfES – yes it is a man – who is probably very nice, who has created a monster of a spreadsheet. It is designed to capture a curriculum model and produce a schedule of accommodation needed to deliver that curriculum, ie type in what you want to teach as a school and it will churn out the number of labs, rooms, workshops etc, each with the required prescribed areas. It is the spreadsheet equivalent of solving the ‘Rubik’s cube’. Thanks to the combined efforts of BASH, this exercise was completed.

The true test of our collaboration came in 2002 when outcome of the PFI credits bidding round was announced. The director of education called heads and chairs of governors to a meeting in a hotel in the centre of the district. It was a case of first the good news and then the bad news. We had been awarded PFI credits. We had made a successful case for both phases of the project but we could only access one phase and the LEA would have to rebid for the second phase the following year and the LEA had decided that my side of the district would be in phase two! No discussion – just a decision.

Phase two heads and governors went into a huddle at the end of the table and while the meeting continued around us we quickly decided to accept the decision and seek pledges of support for the second round of bidding from all those around the table. I felt that by showing a united front to the DfES we might stand a better chance of achieving phase two. We wanted to realise the full ‘Bassetlaw vision’. It was probably one of the best decisions we have ever made. The support was forthcoming, most importantly from the director and county council education portfolio holder. And so we moved onto the next bidding round for credits.

Twelve months later we sat around a similar table being told more good and bad news. The good being that we had been awarded £60m credits, the bad was we had bid for £120+m and we would have to ‘rescope’ our work to meet the financial constraints. More collaboration and extensive negotiations resulted in phase two losing one school from the PFI project (although to be refurbished as part of the 3-19 through-school scheme) and three schools in my town being reduced to two with two schools merging on a single site. This final element was particularly tortuous given the need to look at catchment schools across the town. Any head who has been involved in this exercise will testify to how difficult such negotiations can be.

A team approach
It was about this time that I realised that it was neither healthy (for the school or me) to try to manage the school and wider PFI work on my own. Andy Massey (deputy head) ‘volunteered’ to take on the curriculum modelling, design specifications and generally anything else to do with procuring the Worksop Post-16 Centre (400 places) on my school campus. He was, and still is, brilliant, working with a wide team of LEA, FE college and school colleagues to bring the Centre to evaluation stage.

Maria Rock (deputy head) was tasked to bring design to reality for the 11 to 16 element (1,500 places) of the new Valley School on the campus. Because of the enormity of this latter role, Maria’s job profile was altered to give her (a very small) space to allow her to work. As a professional development opportunity it was possibly the best thing she could have been involved in. She is extremely effective, embracing the task wholeheartedly and taking the project forward at a pace faster than I thought possible.

Credits secured and with a supportive county council eager to see action, the process led eventually to design with three then, after initial evaluation, two bidders for the whole Bassetlaw contract. Throughout this period BASH met and worked through endless problems seeking solutions that met everyone’s needs.

Design in detail
Different LEAs deliver PFI projects in different ways. Nottinghamshire allowed the schools to be the leaders in the design process for our new establishments. I am glad they did. I sent key staff around the country to look at examples of newly built schools both PFI and academies. Another good decision. We came back to share our experiences of what impressed us with and, probably more importantly, the pitfalls and design nightmares that we did not want in a new school. A comment stuck in my mind from Hugh Howe, head of Fir Vale School in Sheffield. He talked to me about the need to design from a basis of educational principles. Sort out your vision of the school and what it is about and let the design follow that vision. So we sat down and did just that.

We prepared a 20-page vision statement for the bidders outlining what we did and did not want. We were explicit and we continually referred to the statement throughout the design stages with the two teams of architects. We were clear with the bidders. Our aim was to create a school, not a building. We focused extensively on designing out problems such as ‘bullying corners’ and designing in solutions such as 4m wide corridors and behaviour management strategies such as sightlines for passive supervision. The design had to be flexible to account for change and had to incorporate the ability to capture the most modern ways of delivering learning opportunities to our students.

Many meetings with the bidders and their architects over a three-month period would last for three to four hours. We would input views from students, governors, subject leaders and support team members. We would scribble all over their outline drawings and challenge their accountants who said things could not be done. If you are ever in the position of being able to design your own school then follow our approach: be tough with them and immerse yourselves in the detail. You should get what you want. By adopting this approach, the bidders will find it easier to deliver what you want. And even after extensive discussions within the school teams we were wracked by self-doubt. Maria and I sat exhausted after one design meeting and echoed ‘What if we haven’t got it right?’

I had a massive reality check at the very end of July. Maria, Andy and I took part in a three-day evaluation of the bids submitted by the two remaining consortia. Each bidder made presentations over a day and a half covering the proposed building designs for the whole project and how the companies were proposing to service the schools over the next 25 years. The months of discussions had produced models and computer generated ‘fly-arounds’ of all the new schools. I was stunned. After five years, we were looking at a version of a potential reality that had previously only existed in our minds and as a set of drawings on paper.

Highs and lows
Evaluation produced a choice of preferred bidder. The company chosen (Transform Schools) will be asked to negotiate for the final contract. As we move into the final design and build stages (completion 2007) we realise we have more work and much more listening and talking to do. We do so knowing the end result will be a school campus and secondary building stock across the whole district of which we can be proud.

I have been told many times that this is an LEA-led PFI project. This is quite correct and without the leadership of councillors and LEA officers we would not be on the brink of such a massive improvement in Bassetlaw. Throughout this period I have promoted this project to many audiences. I talk about it with parents and the press, politicians and pupils. It is a key element in raising the aspirations of our former coal mining, former electronics and former textiles community. ‘Regeneration through education’ and the creation of such wonderful community facilities deserves to be advertised.

Being involved in a PFI project is somewhat akin to riding on a roller coaster. There are high points and low points. As we proceed, I suppose we will eventually get used to the feeling of hurtling into oblivion as we race around corners to enter each new phase of development!

Contact: BRossiter@valley.notts.sch.uk

Report on PFI in schools

In a recent report on PFI in schools, the Audit Commission made a number of key recommendations. It said that:

LEAs should:

  • ensure that bids are selected on which design will provide buildings that promote learning and achieve value for money (VFM) over the whole life of the contract rather than on the basis of apparent lowest cost
  • ensure that working protocols are developed with schools at the outline business case so that schools understand, among other things:
  • know their role in each stage of the process
  • know how information flows will work between LEA and school and vice versa
  • know what support will be available to schools through procurement and the implementation phases – technical, legal and other.

School governors and heads should:

  • take up available training and guidance on school design, how PFI works and their legal and contractual obligations
  • involve themselves from the start, especially in the proposal and design stages.

PFI in Schools: The Quality and Cost of Buildings and Services Provided by Early Private Finance Initiative Schemes can be downloaded from www.audit-commission.gov.uk

Bassetlaw grouped schools PFI project

Rebuilt secondary schools 5
Rebuilt special school 1
Newly created / built post-16 centres 2
Partnership between schools and Norht Notts
Building completeion – phase one Autumn 2006
phase two Autumn 2007
Additional facilities
Bassetlaw Disstrict Council Leisure Centres
Swimming pools 2
Duration of contract 25 years
PFI credits available £126
Estimated net present value of the project £270 m + leisure center
Identified ‘preferred bidder” Transform schools
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