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Horsforth St Margaret's C of E Primary School

Category: Schools

“Oh yes, absolutely enthralled by it. There is a lot of criticism about PFI, but at the present moment I know that we’ve got nearly 400 children and 50 members of staff who wouldn’t be in the building we’ve got today if it wasn’t for PFI. And logically we would probably still have been operating on a split site system in a school that needed an awful lot of work doing to it, despite trying our best to maintain and keep it.”

Alan Willey, Headteacher, St Margaret's C of E Primary School

March, 2007

This school was redeveloped as part of the Leeds City Council Primary Schools PFI project which saw the conversion of 12 existing infant and junior schools into 10 primary schools, which included 8 replacement schools and 2 amalgamated new schools.

The St Margaret’s project involved the refurbishment and rebuilding of the school, which has been on the same site since 1780. The refurbished school opened its doors to pupils in September 2005.

The PPP Forum interviewed Alan Willey, who has been Headteacher of St Margaret’s since 1979.

When I first came here we had seven outside classrooms, with all their particular associated problems, especially in the winter. And then there were the outside toilets…

We’ve got 397 children on this site at the present time. For 10 years between 1985 and 1995 we operated on a split site. So in other words we would have Reception, Year 1 and Year 2 at the other site which is a mile and a half away, and on this site we would have Reception, Year 1 and Year 2 children too, but all our juniors would be on this site as well. So for parents it meant that they could have one child on one site and another child on the other site. And that was one of the biggest rationales as to why we should become a PFI school – the fact that we were a split site of a mile and a half.

The beginning of the PFI process was the start of four and a half years of interesting and hard work. The LEA brought in a video which had been produced by the government about what the PFI would mean and explaining the process, and then a Headteacher came on the video and said yes, it will take up a lot of your time – meetings with planners, architects and so on – but it was up to you how much you wanted to get involved in the process.”

Are you happy with what you’ve got now?

Oh yes, absolutely enthralled by it. There is a lot of criticism about PFI, but at the present moment I know that we’ve got nearly 400 children and 50 members of staff who wouldn’t be in the building we’ve got today if it wasn’t for PFI. And logically we would probably still have been operating on a split site system in a school that needed an awful lot of work doing to it, despite trying our best to maintain and keep it.”

How do you react to the bad press PFI receives?

It is frustrating. I mean we’ve got parents whose children are all on one site, we’ve got staff who can see each other every day rather than having to get in the car and travel a mile and a half away. We’ve got staff who are working in an environment where they come in in the morning and the heating is on. And it’s all these sorts of issues which I had to deal with before the PFI project, particularly to do with the state of repair of both buildings. And the PFI has taken away from me those building management aspects, leaving me to focus on education. I used to be responsible for Legionella – arranging for the cleaning of the tanks on a regular basis and so on. So more or less all of these things have been passed over to the consortium: repairs and fittings, the replacing of window frames, painting – all of that is now completely taken away from me.”

Do you refer to the contract much?

It’s there if we need it, but to be honest we don’t really need it. It’s there if people need to refer to it but what we’ve got here is a very good working relationship – and it works very well.”

What difference has PFI made to your school?

I mean through the new catering provision we have been able to increase our dinner numbers as a result of the quality of food that’s being provided. I know that the type of provision that we had prior to that we would still have if we hadn’t had the PFI project. That’s because of the nature of the kitchens that we had – which were basically an old Victorian classroom that was converted into a kitchen. Now we’ve got a Leeds Advanced Healthy Schools Award – we wouldn’t have had that if we didn’t have the PFI project.

Even when you look at the aspect of providing shade and shelter for the children – it’s very important but on a school budget that wouldn’t be very high on the priority list. And there’s the issue of inclusion. As a school we’ve had tremendous difficulties and problems trying to make our school accessible for everybody. But now under the PFI process that’s all taken care of – we’ve now got hearing loops, Braille, signs on the doors, lifts – it’s all taken care of.

Security is another important issue as well. We’re surrounded by roads and fairly central – so having a security fence means that we can all feel secure. But also what PFI has enabled us to have is Ducklings (the early years) alongside with us. This was the case certain extent beforehand, but they were basically operating in huts on our other site. The PFI procurement and bid process has meant that now they’re working alongside with us as well. We’ve got provision on this site for having a breakfast club. We had an after school club prior to that, but now we’ve got the breakfast club provision. And we’ve also got better provision for the children – not only in the classrooms but outside them as well. We’ve now got small workrooms which are mini-classrooms. It’s somewhere teaching assistants or teachers can actually take children out of the classroom and work with them in small groups, support groups, rather than previously when they had to sit in a library. We’ve now got a quality environment for staff and children to work in.”

Do you think the project has improved educational attainment and enhanced the ethos of the school?

Yes. When I originally met with the architects from the three bidders they said ‘Alan, what is it you’re looking for?’ And the answer to that was ‘Well, I want a building that actually enhanced the ethos of our school’. I actually took them round the school to demonstrate this. This school is built on a very strong ethos, in terms of relationships and so on, and I said that the building has to enhance that. In the previous school, because of its geographical layout, we had year groups at different ends of the school. But now we’ve got the children and the staff in a continuous line, so that’s helped. If you’ve got all the children on one site, then you can actually group the children – previously you couldn’t, and now we can. So this is bound to have an impact on the school.

You wanted to change the original design. Did you have the flexibility to do this?

I think in this particular process there was certainly a willingness to be flexible. To be perfectly honest, QED (the consortium) could have turned round and said we’ve got the contract based on that design, but there was a willingness from all parties to try and get the best for the school. And yes – that meant an awful lot of extra work for everybody involved but that has meant that we have got a design now that we are happy with. Like for example with the computer suite – the architect’s design was for a very thin, narrow suite. But the suite is actually now an open space. And we’ve gone for the pod approach of computers around it rather than benches – so I think there was a flexibility there. But I think also once the building work actually started to take place there was still some degree of flexibility as to what was actually going to happen as well.”

The school is located in a conservation area. This obviously had planning implications which were overcome by retaining the desirable elements of the building and reflecting them sympathetically in the new designs.

It worked, in terms of well, let’s see what we’ve got. For example just down this corridor there were some toilets and when those toilets were knocked down there was an old Victorian door found, but on the architect’s plans that was originally going to be bricked up. So I said wouldn’t it be nice if that was left open, and through the door you created a staff terrace. So we’ve got that now. So these are the little things that, yes, there is a cost involved but the long term rewards are far more significant, because now we’ve got a staff terrace and when the weather’s nice the staff can actually sit outside. And that’s making the staff feel special as well.”

Are the children happier?

Yes, the children are very happy. When we had our open day in October we were inundated with parents, former parents, neighbours and so on. This school has been on this site for 200-plus years, and the comments we had in the visitors’ book were all very positive. And the comments I’ve had from taking prospective parents around the school are very positive as well: in terms of the school, how it’s been built, and how it fits into the environment.”

Now the project is fully operational, do you find that your role has changed?

My role’s changed because I’m now focused more on teaching, whereas before I felt that for a great part of my time I wasn’t. I actually like to teach children, but for a large part of my time before I just physically couldn’t get into the classroom because of the demands that were made by meeting after meeting. But it’s now changed my role significantly in terms of what I’ve now got more time to do.”

How is the partnership working in practice and has it made a big difference?

Yes it’s working well. I mean there are still one or two small issues – but that’s an issue in terms of who is actually responsible for it – but nothing major however. So yes it’s made a big difference for me, and for the staff. The staff lived for 18 months in Portakabins, an experience I wouldn’t like to repeat! But there was no alternative and what was nice was that you could see this place take shape.”

Were the children kept up to date with the progress of the project?

The project managers came in and did assemblies at school. We used to bring children down to the site and they would look through the fences. And there were various competitions…so there was a lot of involvement with the children, and they were kept aware of what was happening and what was going on.”

What advice would you give to anyone about to undertake a PFI project?

People have got to go into this with the view – yes it’s a lot of hard work and there’s a lot of commitment – but the long term gain for the school far outweighs any potential problems – it will be tremendous. The bottom line is that if you want to do it – yes, the advantages are huge and significant. You can’t run a marathon without doing lots of training!”

How would you describe your experience of the PFI process?

I’d recommend it to anybody. We had a very good working relationship with our consortium, so we haven’t got the issues that perhaps some of the other schools have. I’ve been here since 1979, and this school is going to be here for a lot longer. And hopefully the staff, the governing body and I have done the best we can for the school. It’s worked out very well. There’s a very healthy and happy staff and children – which is what education is all about. If you’ve got children and staff who want to come to school in a building they feel proud of it makes your job a lot easier!”