Yardleys School, Birmingham
"This building is exactly what I wanted. They [the contractors] really listened. When I spoke to the architect about what I wanted, I wondered if I had articulated my "dream school" well enough, but he really did seem to understand what I was thinking. I thought perhaps I wouldn't get my dream in totality, but my concept really has been realised. My dream has come true!"
Heather Jones, Head teacher
The Birmingham Schools project, worth £50.5 million, involved the refurbishment of a mixture of 10 primary and secondary schools. The PFI addressed the backlog of repairs and maintenance as well as new accommodation at some sites. Yardleys School was moved to a completely new building.
The PPP Forum interviewed Heather Jones, headteacher of Yardleys School for the past 16 years.
Previously, the teaching was carried out on two sites with a canteen on a third, with staff moving between sites. Has the new site made a significant difference?
"It's wonderful - I feel that I am now able to do the job in the way I've always wanted to do it. I am able to see each student coming in and the face to face contact each morning makes a difference. It is of course much better for the staff as well."
At handover, were the sites fully available as outlined in the specification?
"Yes. There was disagreement about only very minor issues, for instance the number of bins. The contractor felt that there were enough but I thought differently. Having taught children for so many years, I know them inside out - students will eat packets of crisps into the toilets!! It's just an example of where I am able to offer my experience and knowledge to the contractor in order to provide an effective building for students. By working so closely with the contractors, I have developed so much knowledge from them during the past 5 years."
Some critics have suggested that the equipment used in PFI contracts is sub-standard. Have you found that quality has fallen at Yardleys School?
"It isn't in the contractors' interest to provide inferior equipment - any replacements required due to failing sub-standard equipment must come out of their budget. I think even the contractor was surprised, however, that for the most part the school remains in the pristine condition in which it was delivered. Even the palm trees in the atrium remain in good condition - the contractor was convinced they would not last! The students know how much effort I put into helping deliver the facilities they deserve and they appreciate it. It is also such a stark contrast to their old school that they are proud to be here and don't want to ruin it."
The Treasury Task Force guidance states that contractors should accept that it is not in an authority's interest to watch without comment if it believes a design will not work. In practice, do you feel that the contractors have listened to you?
"Absolutely, this building is exactly what I wanted. They really listened. When I spoke to the architect about what I wanted, I wondered if I had articulated my "dream school" well enough, but he really did seem to understand what I was thinking. I thought perhaps I wouldn't get my dream in totality, but my concept really has been realised. My dream has come true!
Whatever your thoughts are about PFI, if it means a new school, you need to make it work. I think the secret is that I never got out of the driving seat and remained in control, which is why I'm happy with what I've got."
An inspection report from 2000 stated that accommodation at the school was of a poor standard. Do you feel that the PPP has adequately rectified this?
"Totally. I don't believe you can find any school like this in the world. Right down to the finishing touches, each department was able to give input as to how their classrooms should be designed so we have colours that differentiate the subject being taught there. It was they who looked at the layouts and signed them off. It's a small thing, but it does make the environment exciting and pleasant to work in. The rooms meet the DFES guidelines regarding space."
The school serves a disadvantaged area of Birmingham, a community which is predominantly made up of ethnic groups. Is this school available for wider use?
"South Birmingham College use our facilities two mornings a week. We have a mini crèche facility mothers can use whilst they attend classes."
The report also stated that the school is sensitive to financial hardship and provides access to resources and opportunities which otherwise would be unattainable. What special facilities does Yardleys provide?
"Yardleys has several features that the children enjoy including the use of a roof garden, gymnasium and music recording facilities."
It has been said that there is a clear link between well maintained and well equipped schools and high levels of pupil attainment. What are your views?
"I definitely agree. I don't have precise statistics at the moment but I believe results will show that attendance is improving. Our students may not be the academic cream but I believe that a school is responsible for turning out good citizens. This new building gives the students the feeling of self worth and the knowledge that they deserve the best. Facilities like the roof garden enable low ratio work so we can develop those students who may not excelling academically and this boosts their confidence."
A recent survey suggested that the client relationship with the contractor changes between negotiation stage to operation. How do you feel about your ongoing relationship with Birmingham Schools?
"Very good. We get on exceptionally well."
Have there been any problems with the school?
"There have been teething problems. The little things that I didn't know about, like the concealed window vents which resulted in our thinking the rooms were drafty, seemed a big issue at the time but then I talk to the contractor and now things are fine. You accept with a new building that you need time to get used to the building and, where there are problems, to put these right."
With regard to contracted non-teaching services, such as cleaning - how do you feel about the standards?
"I have felt that there is not the same level of control, but the original cleaning staff transferred over to the contractor so I feel there is some continuity."
Do you believe the PPP to be good value for money?
Is there anything you would change?
"No, I have always been in the driving seat and therefore the project has turned out to be how I imagined it. The secret of the success has been the making of a real partnership - after all that is the last p in PPP! The two parties must work together and this includes spending time together to understand each other's needs. "