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Canterbury High School

Category: Schools

"The PFI has been so successful we have adapted the project to have a tennis centre. It’s much easier to adapt because of its unique nature."

David Platts, Deputy Headteacher of Canterbury High School

April, 2006

The PPP Forum interviewed David Platts, Deputy Headteacher of Canterbury High School.

In his 27 years at Canterbury High School, has seen it go from the local sink school to the top of the government’s league tables for value added.

Today it is a thriving organisation educating people from 3 months to 99 years old with Olympic grade facilities in sports and elite academies for athletics, rugby, football, tennis and fencing. The school also has an observatory on the campus and pupils have worked with the local university to design a space stability suit which has appeared on Tomorrow's World and been used by astronauts in space.

A £4.25 million PFI has helped to make all this possible.

"When your back is to the wall you will try anything. We were open to any new initiative that was going. We applied to the lottery and, when we heard about it, to the government for PFI. What we were after at that time was a proper athletics track with club approval to replace the grim PE facilities at the site. We also needed a change of name and a change of reputation."

The school became Canterbury High School and it also became one of the 7 pathfinder schools for the Private Finance Initiative.

"We already had planning permission – we thought we’d get that first then try to find the funding. The Council offered us £10,000 but only for that financial year. We wrote off about a thousand letters to raise funding and I think we got a £5 Marks and Spencer voucher in return.

We still needed a big idea so we had a brainstorming session with the staff and the idea we came up with was to build an observatory at the school. It’s not as crazy as it may seem, one of the teachers was an amateur astronomer and was able to help us with the specification. Then by sheer luck and determination we managed to get Jim Irwin, one of the NASA astronauts, to come and open it and the whole event was on Blue Peter."

The school was improving its reputation but not its sports facilities. The PFI was progressing very slowly.

"In those days people thought PFI was only for prisons and transport projects. We also had the complication of wanting to integrate PFI and lottery money. We had someone from the PFI taskforce come to work with us and we needed three letters from government ministers to support our application, from Education, from Sport and from the Postmaster General who was responsible for PFI in those days. Sport England worked with us to develop a new applications procedure for this kind of request. So we finally had half a million promised from the Funding Agency for Schools, three million and eight thousand from Sport England and went off to OJEC to try to raise the capital to £4.5 million."

The design had been worked up with a developer who had no PFI experience and the process was the school used was flawed. They got no takers for the project and felt they had gone down another blind alley.

"But we were not prepared to give up. The Funding Agency for Schools linked us up with David Wright who had worked on prison PFIs at the Home Office. He was a civil servant seconded onto this project and he came with all the knowledge of how we should proceed which was an utterly new world for us. First of all we went out to tender for legal, financial and project management. We selected the most expensive solicitor but hiring Freshfields was the best thing we did, Nick Bliss is a major PFI expert. We also hired Deloittes for our financial and project management. They were expensive but worth every penny in saving us from dead ends."

There had been a change of government during this time but luckily the incoming Labour administration was supportive of PFI and of this project in particular. In 1998 they went back to OJEC and this time had 3 companies who met their criteria. The one selected was Sports LTD, a consortium of WTS (sports provider) Ash Corporate Finance and Ballast Wiltshire.

"Things certainly didn’t run smoothly from then. We lost our bank funding as the PFI was so experimental and they were not prepared to lend against anticipated revenue streams as we had no track record.

The lottery was threatening to pull out but at that time it was the largest lottery grant in Kent and there had been loads of PR about it. Ballast were bidding for other PFI projects. No one could afford to let this one fail.

Finally we got to financial close in July 2000 and work got under way. The Sports Minister, Richard Caborn, was booked for the official opening in September. Then Ballast went bust! The facilities were built but not snagged at that point. We had to dissolve the consortium and Ash Corporate Finance became the PFI partner. But they were too small to take on the liability so the school ended up taking back the risk and inventing its own system of financial penalties. We have a basic trust between us and operator we don’t want them to go bust and want them to make money but we want first call on all the facilities."

The school now has limited selection on music but still has a very mixed intake. Surprisingly for a sports school it hasn’t become dominated by boys, just as many girls apply each year. And the school is oversubscribed and the first choice for all those accepted.

"The PFI has been so successful we have adapted the project to have a tennis centre. It’s much easier to adapt because of its unique nature. We have taken out the construction element so it’s just an operational document and we have a variations clause in it.

Ours was the only one of the original 7 pathfinders to succeed and because of that we have a good reputation for successfully piloting government initiatives. Right now we have an experimental federation scheme running which is why we have students from 3 months to 99 years old. We also want to pilot business start up units integrated into a new school and children’s centre. We are working with our PFI partner on all these initiatives. We have a very good relationship with them and the managing director of Ash is now on the school board of governors. It’s been good for them too as they now have a number of other PFIs.

But none of it was easy. The governing body took me off curriculum for a year to do this and were very supportive even on all the occasions when we thought the whole thing would just die. The school is based in a challenging area but we now have students going to university, including Oxford. For those who would find university impossible we have a system whereby they can work in the gym or the school itself and study part time. That way they can build up a nest egg to pay the fees.

Pupils now get a much better deal all round. They all have a greater sense of self worth for being in a go ahead school with the high quality staff we now attract."