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Clacton County High School

Category: Schools

"To be honest with you, what has been achieved is probably greater than I dared hope in terms of quality and its effect on the school."

John Clay, Headteacher, Clacton County High School

January, 2007

The Clacton schools project involved the alteration and refurbishment of both Clacton County High School and Colbayns High School and the construction of a brand new, 900 place facility to be named Bishop’s Park College.

The schools were also remodelled as Joint Services Centres, which involved providing additional facilities such as cyber cafés, nurseries and sporting facilities that could be used by residents outside school hours, making the schools a more integral part of the community.

The PPP Forum interviewed John Clay, Headteacher of Clacton County High School.

One of the strengths of the scheme was the way that the schools were fully involved literally right from hearing that the money was available.

We were involved at every stage. We put our wish list together of what we wanted to achieve – not in building terms – but in overall terms for the school. For example, the school expanded in the 1990s, but in a very piecemeal way because the funding agency would only give you funding to build classrooms, labs and the like – the central issues of circulation, dining and social space were what we wanted to address. There wasn’t the money available and what PFI did was to enable us to work on one of our main priorities – to create a coherence across the school as a whole. So we met and discussed our aims, and obviously as that began to turn into a design phase we again were fully involved in that design.”

Did you get what you wanted?

To be honest with you, what has been achieved is probably greater than I dared hope in terms of quality and its effect on the school”.

Do you feel that the project was approached in the spirit of partnership?

Very much so. What we finally built has worked out incredibly well – I mean to create this dining space, the social space and the gym.”

Wates, the contractor, suggested some proposals that the school hadn’t even considered which meant that the school could increase their sports facilities and get a dining space that is now at the heart of the school.

It was Wates who suggested that the existing gym could become a dining area, as could the atrium outside. And this meant that a new gym could also be built. That came up as part of the discussions with the architects about what we were trying to achieve. That’s tremendous. In lay views we had an idea of a dining area as a separate building – but it’s converted into something that’s at the heart of the school. It’s much better, much more preferable – and that didn’t come from us, that came from the PFI architects and designers.”

How did you find the construction phase?

Potentially it could have been incredibly disruptive because the build wasn’t a separate block, it was ripping out the heart of the school and rebuilding it – it could have been a disaster. And again I can only be complimentary. We worked on a daily basis with the construction firm Wates, and we kept going. Yes it was disruptive but I always felt that Wates had (unlike some other builders I’ve worked with) had the priority of the school at heart. So they did do certain things which couldn’t have been cost effective – a lot of weekend working for example to minimise disruption. That was great.”

How involved were the staff and pupils in the process?

We had forum meetings with both staff and students. The staff were instrumental in designing their staff room – it’s their staff room and it’s what they wanted. And similarly with the sixth form, again they created a sixth form space and their committee was fully involved in that. There were regular updates to the children through the student councils. Wates also inputted into certain lessons - their construction people would come into say a science lesson and talk about construction issues. We were using them as an area of expertise that we haven’t got. It was a very good atmosphere.”

Was the project built on time?

Yes – it was spot on. And certainly from my side there was never a budget issue – there was never a situation where someone was saying to me I can’t do this because the money’s run out.”

What impact has the improved environment had?

I used to be very cynical about the affect that environment had. I’ve changed – without doubt if you ask you will find the morale of the school, students and staff significantly higher than before. So I eat my words on that one! Environment has a big effect. Staff are happier and certainly if you show new staff around the school the impression they get now must be significantly better than it was two or three years ago.

Have you seen an increase in educational attainment?

During the worst bit of the project (during the construction phase) attainment actually dipped by 3%. Despite Wates’ efforts the disruption was significant. For example we had the music block out of action for about 6 months and as a result we were working in temporary accommodation. However when we surveyed the students they said they didn’t feel that the build had affected their results. But as a staff we feel it did because (and no-one could have done anything about this) the distance to move between lessons was more significant, so the lessons started less promptly. However, now our results have climbed back to a record level (not necessarily all due to PFI) but there is a much more positive feel about the students. And they’re working now obviously in far better conditions than they were – and they have that social space.”

Has PFI made your job easier?

I think it will do. I think if I have a reservation about PFI at the moment, it’s probably related to the bureaucracy that is undertaken to get things done – and I think we’re cutting through that, but for the past year there has been a degree of frustration – we were a grant-maintained school and used to getting things done quickly. There is now a level of necessary bureaucracy that we have to go through to get things done. And that is probably the only issue I’ve got with PFI.

If you look back the school maintenance wasn’t as good as it should have been. And part of the reason for that, rightly or wrongly, was that if there was a year in which money was really tight, I almost certainly would have raided the maintenance pot to protect the curriculum. I think only time will tell on that one because obviously now we don’t have the flexibility to do that – the PFI commitment is there. The good side of that is obviously that the standard of the maintenance, the building and the cleaning will continue – so that’s a very positive side.

We’ve been fortunate, in that since PFI came about, the government has put more money into schools – so funding hasn’t been an issue up to this point. So the fact that we are paying more for PFI but we are getting a better standard – I’m the first to admit that hasn’t been a problem. If money in education becomes tighter at some point that may be a problem in future years.”

Do you think that PFI receives unfairly negative press coverage?

I think PFI is getting unfortunate press coverage (maybe for good reasons in some cases). But here we’re very positive. If you want an example of that, when we decided to undertake the PFI project, the Governors of the school weren’t unanimous because one or two of them had concerns about the PFI process and the commitment we were making. One of those Governors has recently admitted to a Governors committee that he was wrong – having now seen what the school is looking like. This would never have been achieved without PFI.”

What has PFI meant for your school?

What it means to the school is achieving a level of build and environment that is good quality – far above what we would have achieved without PFI – at all levels. We’ve created that social space. Even some of the classrooms that haven’t really been touched in terms of new build - they’re now refurbished and they’ve got new desks and new carpets. So even those areas that haven’t benefited from the new build are now a much better learning environment without doubt.

The standard of caretaking and of cleaning is significantly better than it was. I think we have some issues still with cleaning but overall the standard is better than it was two or three years ago. It’s gone very well, I’m very pleased with it. The effect on the school is quite outstanding.”