‘Interest’ in new schools

SENIOR councillors have expressed fears about a new Government scheme aimed at rebuilding schools in the worst condition.

The Government’s Priority Schools Building Programme aims to build between 100 and 300 new schools in England, with the first set to open within three years.

Hartlepool Borough Council, which is co-ordinating the scheme in town, carried out an analysis of schools and four have met the criteria.

They are Manor College of Technology, Barnard Grove Primary, Holy Trinity Church of England Primary and West View Primary.

Cabinet members met to discuss initial applications of interest to be part of the private finance initiatives (PFI) scheme.

PFIs see private firms fund such projects, while the public sector makes repayments over many years so public bodies do not have to pay huge upfront sums for new buildings or major redevelopments.

Schools would be required to make a contribution to the annual revenue payments.

Cabinet members recognised the need for the new buildings, but raised fears about the financial constraints on schools, whether they would lose their independence and what would happen if schools wanted to become an academy.

A report to councillors said: “Each headteacher and governing body has confirmed that they would like the council to submit an expression of interest for this programme on their behalf.

“Each school however did express some reservations about going forward, which in the main is due to the lack of firm details available around longer term financial commitments and each reserved the right to withdraw at a later stage if it was felt to be in their long term interests.”

Officers stressed that at this stage it is just an application of interest.

Labour group leader Chris Simmons, portfolio holder for children’s services, said: “We should have quite considerable reservations about any PFI involvement with schools.

“If we are going to take this step we need to be given absolute assurances that the schools will remain masters of their own destiny and that the school is in control.”

The axed Building Schools for the Future (BSF) and Primary Capital Programme (PCP) would have seen £150m spent on rebuilding all town secondary schools and refurbishing or rebuilding primary schools.

Mayor Stuart Drummond said: “When Education Secretary Michael Gove withdrew BSF and PCP he said that the Government could not afford it and that bricks and mortar were not important.

“But he seems to have changed his mind and that winds me up.”

Labour councillor Peter Jackson, regeneration and economic development and skills portfolio holder, asked if the BSF preparation and design work done for Manor College of Technology could be used for this new scheme.

Officers said that it could, but the new school buildings would all be a standard design.

Under BSF and PCP, there would have been different buildings designed for different schools.

Coun Simmons added: “This is coming with enormous strings and expenditure.”

Labour councillor Robbie Payne, portfolio holder for finance and procurement, asked if it was raising people’s expectations by even showing an interest in the scheme, but he was told that at this stage schools were just “dipping their toes in the water”.

l See Mayor on Wednesday: Page 13