ppp header

Fir Vale School, Sheffield

Category: Schools

"From day one the children were mesmerized by their new surroundings. But I think our ultimate achievement has been to transform the culture at the school. Vandalism and graffiti are at an all time low. The children have been given a high quality building and they really look after it. So do the people in the local community. In two and a half years we've had only two broken windows. If you go back a few years it wasn't unusual to have eighty windows broken in one night at the old school on this site."

Richard Steele, Business Manager, Fir Vale School in Sheffield

January, 2004

The PPP Forum interviewed Hugh Howe, Headmaster, and Richard Steele, Business Manager, Fir Vale School in Sheffield.

Fir Vale School was once described as the worst school in the country. Under its old name, Earl Marshall, it was "named and shamed" by the incoming Labour government shortly after the 1997 election and put into Labour's "Fresh Start" programme. In 1998 the school was relaunched with a new name, new staff and ambitious plans for a new school building. The Local Education Authority in Sheffield had already decided that this building would be procured through another relatively new government initiative, the Private Finance Initiative, when the new head teacher, Hugh and Richard arrived at Fir Vale in 1999. It was one of 6 new schools planned for Sheffield in one of the first grouped schools PFI projects in the country.

Richard: "We arrived during the tendering process so we did have a say in which consortium won the contract but as one of a group of schools we had to work with our partners right from the start. We had the five other schools to consult and we also needed to establish relationships with the local council and the local education authority as well as the contractors."

Hugh: "I think we approached the partnership with the LEA and the contractor from a very positive point of view. It wasn't just about having a new building but it was also about not losing sight of our strong educational values and the principles we wanted to see in the school."

Pyramid Schools (Sheffield) Ltd, a consortium of Innisfree and Interserve (then known as Tilbury Douglas) was selected and entered in to a 25-year concession to build, design, finance, maintain and operate the two infant schools and four secondary schools in the group. Fir Vale became operational in 2001 and was officially opened by the queen in 2003. As well as a royal visit, 2003 saw Fir Vale's best GCSE results ever, with 34% of pupils attaining 5 A* to C passes compared with just 11 per cent four years ago. In the 2004 league tables its value added score of 108 ranked it 12th in the country and an Ofsted inspection rated Fir Vale as the most successful fresh start school, with a "staggering" improvement in exam results of over 200%.

Hugh:
"The building is a contributory factor to these fantastic results; it's a stunning, innovative design. Without PFI we wouldn't have this great building and we certainly wouldn't have had it delivered so quickly. It's had a profound effect on the students. This school serves one of the most deprived parts in the city. It's really something to be able to say that the best building in this area is a school; the most expensive building in the area is a school. Six years ago this school had surplus places now we are oversubscribed with the longest waiting list in Sheffield."

Richard: "From day one the children were mesmerized by their new surroundings. But I think our ultimate achievement has been to transform the culture at the school. Vandalism and graffiti are at an all time low. The children have been given a high quality building and they really look after it. So do the people in the local community. In two and a half years we've had only two broken windows. If you go back a few years it wasn't unusual to have eighty windows broken in one night at the old school on this site."

Fir Vale has about 720 pupils between the ages of 11 and 16. The new building has been designed to allow the pupils to move through the school easily, especially at busy times such as lesson changeovers. The school also boasts a sports hall, floodlit all weather pitch, fitness suite, theatre and recording studio. The design allows for use of the facilities by the local community and it the contract provided for a new youth centre building.

Hugh:
"I think there's scope for much more use by the local community but at the moment we're just glad to see less abuse from the people living around here. In the past we'd get people walking their dogs on the grounds and letting them foul the playing fields. We had windows broken as we mentioned and rubbish dumped on the playgrounds. Now that's all stopped. The next step is to get them to come in and use the facilities a bit more but its still early days really."

The Sheffield Schools project was considered high profile as it was one of five pilot schemes in the Department of Education and because David Blunkett, then Secretary of State for Education, is a local MP. Some very early PFI schools were criticized for poor design by the Audit Commission in a report published in January 2003. Many others were designed well, including Fir Vale.

Hugh:
"This is certainly not a "barn with windows" It's true we were a very early school, one of the earliest in fact but we simply would not have settled for an uninspiring design. We worked very hard to achieve all this and we're still working at it. In fact that's one of the frustrations we have with the PFI, several senior staff still have to spend a large amount of time managing the contract and the contractors instead of just concentrating on teaching which is what we were expecting. There were some quite serious difficulties at the beginning because the caretaker retired and it took an inordinate amount of time to find a permanent replacement for him. But I believe our partnership is improving as it matures. It's difficult sometimes for someone like me to relinquish responsibility for any part of the running of the school. I just don't accept compromise. But this is a learning experience for all of us. The contractors have had to learn that the product they're dealing with here is life chances for children. We will not risk the future of any child now in order to get things right in the end they have to be right from day one. I have very high expectations of the children at this school and I am consistent in my values and principles. The pupils know that and now the contractors know that too. We will not accept any less than their best."

Richard: "One of the outcomes of the new building has been the number of enquiries to the school from people wishing to see the new premises. In developing partnerships and sharing good practice we have tried to find time to accommodate a variety of organisations and individuals in order to share the success of the school and show how the new building has impacted on the school as a whole."