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Stoke Schools

Category: Schools

"The timespan [of the PFI contract] allows us to budget sensibly and plan ahead on an assured basis. This was something we just couldn't do before. That is brilliant."

Mike Inman, Head of Premises and Client Services

June, 2002

The PPP Forum interviewed Mike Inman, Head of Premises and Client Services for Stoke City Council. Mike has been with the Council since the Education Authority was established in April 1997. He has been involved from the beginning in this ground-breaking grouped schools PFI project.

The project is to upgrade, maintain and supply energy to the educational and associated buildings for a concession period of 25 years. During the first five years the schools are all required to be repaired to meet the strict requirements of a bespoke Output Specification. Some of the schools have been totally replaced with new buildings. In total Stoke Schools PFI includes 6 Special Schools, 11 Nursery Schools, 88 Primary Schools, and 17 High Schools.

How did the project first originate?

"I was involved from the beginning in getting the project off the ground. There were very few PFI schools schemes in 1997 - Colfox School in Dorset and a small primary school in Hull. When we started looking at the schools in Stoke we realized they were in a bad way. The budgets available at the time meant we could repair but not replace the schools. Patching them up was not an option for us. There had been no capital spend for 15-20 years and we felt that there was only one option, which was to consider PFI."

Was the scheme originally on such a large scale?

"We originally only looked at a much smaller group of schools, but heads and governors of others were keen to be involved. We did not want to create a disparity between quality of schools whereby people would move to the better schools and instead we went to ask the government what they thought about a project with 124 schools. There was no precedent but the government said that if we want to go ahead that they would support us. That is how our Pathfinder project came about. Estelle Morris said at the opening of the first two schools that this was a great leap of faith by the Stoke City."

How long did the project take to get off the ground?

"The procurement period was estimated to take about two years but ended up at three and a half because it was such a ground breaking project."

Are only local authority schools covered?

"It covers all types of schools including voluntary aided and church schools, which I believe is the only project to include these as well as LEA schools.

As it was such a large scheme the only source of money available to us was through PFI. PFI schemes only get the final sign off if they show value for money against traditional routes of procurement. 12% value for money has been established - this is quite large, probably because the size of the project resulted in economies of scale.

The project encompasses both new build and refurbishment. How is this split? There are nine and a half new schools and we now want to do four more (through an additional PFI scheme) so there will be thirteen and a half altogether

PFI Schools have been criticised for being badly designed and lacking architectural innovation. Do you think this was the case with the new builds in Stoke?

"If you get the output specification right at the beginning then there shouldn't be those kinds of issues. We had a rough layout before signing the contract, we involved all the governing bodies and after signing we worked through the design in great detail, including the smaller issues (such as door security etc.) What has been interesting is that the contractor came up with the basic design and some schools have 'bought' extra space such as a community room. We are pleased with the quality of materials.

There is a contradiction here. Architects like to do their own thing but tend to forget about ongoing life cycle costs of the building. There is a balance to be had. The PFI means that the designers and those maintaining it are working together to produce a structure which is lifecycle efficient. I am pleased about that. We want efficient, low maintenance schools.

The market is maturing and these issues have to be resolved

Have the schools been well received by the stakeholders?

"I think the schools we have opened are very good and all the people involved feel they own the project - which is very important."

A fundamental requirement of the contract was to deliver a 20% reduction in energy consumption, do you feel that this has been achieved?

"Stoke Council is committed to local agenda 21 and this was an important part of the PFI. The PFI is contracted to deliver efficiencies of 20% at the end of five years and 25% at the end of ten years which gives incentives to continually look at new technological developments in energy efficiency. This is a fundamental part of the project."

How would you describe your working relationship with your private sector partners?

"We need to refurbish schools while they continue to function, including special needs children. We were careful to say to all our bidders that price is important but so is quality and how you intend with us to manage the partnership. One of the advantages of PFI is that over the pre-signature period you get to know the contractors very well and get the feel of who you can work with - this is one of the key important points in actually selecting the contractor.

We signed a partnership protocol which was a public statement stating that whatever difficulties arose we would all work together in partnership - all five key parties signed that.

What is key to success is the day to day working of the project and keeping all the stakeholders in the loop. We spent a lot of time working up systems of communication. 28 schools have been completed and we have only had teething troubles in 3 or 4. These were when issues arose around a relationship between the school head and site contractor - which is when we stepped in quickly to resolve any issues. In one and a half years I have not had to invoke any clauses in the contract. Any issues have been resolved speedily at a low level. I think this is an important message to other education authorities in that you can rush to the contract to invoke penalties and clauses but that is not partnership

How do you make sure the project runs smoothly?

"There is informal day to day contact, with a formal weekly meeting on site and a monthly review meeting. This further fosters better working relationships between the parties."

Is the refurbishment and new build work on time?

"Two schools which should have been refurbished have not been on time. This was due to the fact that their condition was found to be much worse than we had anticipated - the need for additional work was accepted on both sides. All the new builds are on time."

In the first year of operation, the Help desk received almost 6,000 calls, how did you feel about the response times?

"Response and rectification times are defined in the output specifications. For example, in an important Category A failure like a boiler problem, the contractor needs to send someone within an hour to identify the problem and to rectify the problem within the next hour, up to a combined two hour maximum. There are financial penalties for non response and non rectification. We had 20 failures in the first year. This is a very small percentage of the whole."

How does the Help desk compare with the situation before?

"All the Heads think it is great. With the old system it may have been two days with a lot of chasing up to resolve a problem. Teachers are being paid to teach and it should not be their responsibility to worry about the school building. All I have to do now is to ring one number and I know exactly what is going on and the onus is on the contractor to resolve the problem as quickly as possible. Haydens, the facilities management contractor, has been very good. It is 100% better than what we had before."

The school site management staff remain employed by the council but time is made available to Transform Schools for basic duties. Has this arrangement worked well?

"It generally works well. We have produced a Code of Practice which we call a Protocol agreed with all parties such as Haydens, the Unions, Governors etc - The Site Staff protocol talks about who is responsible for what. It is generally working well apart from one or two schools. We now have 8 Protocols governing all aspects of the scheme. This is the most important one."

Do Teachers like the PFI?

"I think it is right to say that most of the heads would say without any prompting that it is working extremely well."

Do other authorities approach you for advice on their own projects?

"Yes, regularly, about two to three times a week. The government gave us the pump priming on the condition that we share our experiences. There are five DFES Pathfinders (Tower Hamlets, Sheffield, Kirklees, Cornwall and ours), but a lot of the new PFI school schemes are modeled on ours."

As a result of demographic changes, a number of schools will close and a number of new build schools will be added, how flexible do you feel the PPP is in accommodating these changes?

"We negotiated that in the contract we can change the number of schools up or down and if things should change further, there is room to maneuver within the contract. It is interesting though that with falling rolls, rather then refurbish two old schools we can put the money, plus a little extra, into building one new one. That is where our extra four schools are coming from. This is adding value to our PFI Scheme and is something the Audit Commission has talked to us about. They will produce a report in the Autumn on added value."

Some say that PFI schemes 'mortgage the future' for public services. What do you think of those fears?

"Yes, there is a debate about this, but I am not concerned. The time span [of the contract] allows us to budget sensibly and plan ahead on an assured basis. This was something we just couldn't do before. That is brilliant."

What would you say has been the key to this project's success?

"We have just won an award for the best operational scheme. I believe the partnership arrangements won it for us."