Signs of muddle and panic are emerging at the heart of government thinking over the future of schools. The White Paper and its policies - more academies and closure within a year for weaker schools - are not consistent with the previous policy of using the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) for the refurbishment of most schools.
Under PFI, schools being renovated are leased to the company that carried out the refurbishment and the work is paid for mortgage-style over the next 25 years. In Merton, south London, councillors now want to turn two PFI-improved schools into academies. As a result, the schools have to be bought out of the last 24 years of their lease with the private company, at a cost of millions of pounds. The Department for Education and Skills (DfES) has indicated to council officials that it is prepared to meet the cost of the buy-out. This, according to Steve Sinnott, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, is a scandalous waste of taxpayers' money. We agree.
The situation is further complicated, however. In Liverpool, the city council has told the DfES that it would prefer not to carry out a £300m-plus refurbishment of its schools through the PFI, on the grounds that the White Paper proposals make it impossible to give the PFI contractor the necessary 25-year guarantee of the school's life. Any school, the city council argues, could be closed under the provision to allow popular schools to expand and weaker ones to go to the wall if they fail to improve in a year.
These two cases highlight a dilemma that must be dealt with by ministers as soon as possible. Either there should be less reliance on the PFI method of refurbishing schools, or less desperation to turn so many schools into academies. Preferably action should be taken on both fronts. It cannot make economic sense to guarantee a school's life for 25 years one year, and then close it down to become an academy the next. If no action is taken by ministers to remedy this contradiction, it must make it more likely that backbench MPs will be reluctant to support any legislation resulting from the White Paper because it will exacerbate the kind of problems being experienced in Merton and Liverpool.Reuse content