Schools back Blunkett on private cash plan

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The Independent Online
JUDITH JUDD

Education Editor

Members of Britain's biggest teaching union yesterday gave a warm reception to David Blunkett, Labour's education spokesman, as he promised to remedy decades of neglect of crumbling school buildings.

Mr Blunkett's reception was in sharp contrast to that given on Saturday to Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education, by the National Union of Teachers and to his own at last year's conference, when he was jostled by left-wing militants.

In a forceful and effective speech, he outlined plans for a new partnership between the private and public sector to deal with a backlog of repair work on schools, recently calculated to amount to pounds 3.2bn.

Teachers' leaders immediately questioned whether Labour would raise taxes to finance building improvements if the new scheme failed to generate enough money.

Labour is talking to a number of banks, including Hambros, about a scheme under which a group of schools would form a consortium - together with a lender - to organise and administer borrowing for building work.

Banks, which are currently reluctant to lend money to individual schools under Government plans to allow opted-out schools to borrow against their assets, have told Labour that its scheme is much more attractive as it would entail dealing with several schools at once.

And the scheme would enable them to charge lower interest on loans because - as they would be part of the consortia themselves - they would benefit from efficiency savings on the reduced cost of managing the refurbished buildings. For example, temporary classrooms, which are expensive to heat, would be replaced.

Local authorities would hand over money earmarked for maintenance to meet interest on the loans.

Mr Blunkett said: "There will be no dramatic shift followed by retrenchment. There will be a decade of sustained year-on-year investment and improvement. It is time to put away buckets from under leaking roofs. It is time to heat classrooms and not the atmosphere outside, to take away the paper from inside the rattling window fra mes." The scheme, which means spending hundreds of millions of pounds on school buildings each year, is a development of proposals from John Prescott, the party's deputy leader, for a public/private partnership to run the railways. Mr Blunkett said the whole thrust of the scheme was that there would be no increase in the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement. He won warm applause for his condemnation of selective schools and nursery vouchers, though militant delegates sat stony-faced and silent at the end of his speech. t Don Foster, the Liberal Democrats' Education spokesman, will today call for a complete overhaul of the present system of school inspections. He will tell the conference that bidding by privatised teams for contracts to inspect schools should be scrapped and Her Majesty's Inspectors should lead the teams. Schools should evaluate their own strengths and weaknesses and there should be more local authority advisers. t Delegates are to vote tomorrow on a motion that pupils benefit from having gay teachers

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