No pictures in our school

We spent yesterday with friend and their three primary-age children.   Since we last saw them their school has been rebuilt under a PFI scheme so one of the first questions was about how they like it.

“It’s boring – there are no pictures” said the youngest, age six.

His mother explained that teachers are not allowed to stick anything to the walls which are emulsion on plaster for fear that blu-tack will remove little patches of paint.   All artwork, charts, maps and the like are confined to limited noticeboards.

“But it’s very bright with nice big windows” mother said hopefully.   The children all said that they preferred their old Victorian school.

This is everything that’s wrong with PFI even allowing for the less than perfect information that filtered through to us.   I’m guessing that if there were a good case for a new school that this would have filtered through to the older children in some form.  (E.g. The roof leaks and would be too expensive to repair).   In fact I had earlier heard stories that staff and parents were not convinced of the need for a new school but had been overruled.

Cui bono?

But even granted that a new school was needed, the “no pictures” rule is deeply shocking for what it says about priorities – which evidently don’t include children.  Did the financiers not know that primary schools generate lots of artwork?  Did they fail to provide a suitable wall covering – or will they now attempt to blame the council for not so specifying?   And even given that it’s now a done deal what is so serious about a few divots in the emulsion?

Presumably the lawyers would be only too happy (at vast expense!) to sort something out but if we need their help to get a few pictures up we really have lost the plot.

For me this illustrates a point that is too often forgotten; that there comes a point in any scheme where financial analysis (which I assume this school ‘passed’) cannot help.   Even aside from the GIGO issue there is always a non-financial dimension which is not captured by a financial appraisal and which comes down to judgement.  For instance it might be the case that Plan A beats Plan B in financial terms by £10,000 but is less flexible.  So the question then becomes ‘Is retaining flexibility worth £10,000?’   If it is, then Plan B is superior despite costing more.

At the end of the day it is hardly surprising if this and other PFI schemes emit a very bad smell for they depend for their existence on three very dubious factors:

  1. The government’s desire to fiddle the books by moving expenditure off its balance sheet as a way of hiding its profligacy – and just look what that did for the banks! 
  2. A pathological hostility to local government and democracy and preference for centralised control with Whitehall pulling the strings.
  3. A  corporatist agenda – a penchant for keeping close to selected big companies and keeping the revolving door going.

None are exactly Lib Dem themes!  Am I alone in being mystified about why we don’t call time on PFI?


2 responses to this post.

  1. I teach in a new PFI school. I can assure you that most of what you write about walls and displays is NOT true.

    Our PFI owners told us this at first, my head complained, we said it was a school and that we needed to display things. They then agreed to put up lots and lots of display boards and told us we could put anythin we wanted on walls as long as we used white tack instead of blue tack. I could show you the walls of my class if you want but you’d see virtually no paint.

    The main fault with PFI is the inability of support staff to put things right without having to fill in forms in triplicate, get permission or use PFI contractors. But the walls thing is a problem only if the headteacher does not choose to pursue the issue. Ours did and we now have no problems. The trick is not to believe what the PFI people say and get the school to check the small print of the contracts.


  2. Posted by liberaleye on 17 March 2009 at 1:56 pm

    Not true? But your experience was initially just the same. This is a very newly built (not ‘new’ because of a house move) school and hopefully the most egregious of these teething problems will be sorted out in the next few weeks. Congratulations to your head for negotiating well for your school.

    While the petty bureaucracy you experience at the chalk face must indeed be annoying, I believe that if we actually knew the real financial numbers we would see that PFI schemes are in reality and over their life remarkably poor value for money.


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