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SCHOOLS PFI A SUCCESS, SAYS MINISTER - BUT MORE FLEXIBILITY PROMISED

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By LGCnet political correspondent Robert Hedley ...
By LGCnet political correspondent Robert Hedley

The use of the private finance initiative in schools had been popular and successful, children's minister Margaret Hodge told MPs.

Replying to Richard Bacon, Conservative MP for South Norfolk, she said more than 100 of the 150 English local education authorities had applied to take part in the programme, which had progressed from one contract covering one school in 1997 to 64 contracts covering 600 schools today. Services had started under 39 of those contracts, and they represented a private sector capital investment of more than £1.7bn.

Mr Bacon said Hobart High School in his constituency would willingly forgo its capital grant for several years if it could get a relatively small sum to finish the work going on under the PFI so it could properly meet all its students' needs. He suggested there should be room for more flexibility in the way capital allocations are made in the period after a PFI contract had been let.

Mrs Hodge said the Norfolk contract had been especially complex but innovative because it had been trying to provide capital infrastructure and services in a wide range of rural schools. As the first project of its kind, there had been problems.

'However...in relation to Hobart High School, we are looking at the situation there, and I agree entirely that we need to be flexible in how we adminster the PFI contract to ensure that we get value and spread the benefits to as many schools as we can in Norfolk', she added.

James Purnell, Labour MP for Stalybridge and Hyde, said a new school building for Tameside MBC had been built on budget and on time, and had transformed a school that had been under-subscribed to one which was now significantly over-subscribed. He asked ministers to look seriously at Tameside's bid for a wide range of investment in six or seven new schools in the constituency.

Mrs Hodge congratulated all councils engaged in the PFI programme. The government had inherited a legacy of £750m bein g invested in schools; by 2005-06, the figure would be over £5bn. That was partly due to the PFI element.

Vincent Cable, Liberal Democrat MP for Twickenham, a constituency with several PFI schools, said: 'There is satisfaction that schools have been built on budget and on time, but there is growing alarm among head teachers at the amount of time that they have to devote to negotiating the minutiae of things such as telephone charges and who is responsible for erecting shelves in school libraries'.

He asked for clarification, in particular, on when there was a dispute between a school and a PFI landlord about the priority to be given to the safety of children over such things as gates, who was responsible - the landlord or the school?

Mrs Hodge replied that the safety of children must be paramount, and that should be built into the terms of the contract. The government would examines the concerns raised.

She added: 'Clearly, the skills of negotiating contracts are new for head teachers and others engaged in PFIs, but I hear from many head teachers they feel relieved at not having to get involved in the day-to-day running of things such as changing light bulbs or making sure that clocks are synchronised in classrooms. That enables them to focus much more of their time on what they are there for, which is raising standards in the classroom'.

Hansard 4 Dec 2003: Column 635 - 637

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