Low staff morale, paper thin walls, McDonald style meals. These conditions are now a reality for many Merseyside schools under Private Finance Initiatives (PFI). Jimmy James* explains why.
I recently worked in a Liverpool school that was newly built five years ago. After just two years holes appeared in the extremely thin walls. It seems the walls were made as cheaply as possible out of some kind of board. The school was built under a PFI scheme.
As a teacher who has worked in PFI schools for five years, I have seen at first hand the effect of these initiatives on schools on the front line.
In one school that I worked in, a private company providing dinners started to use McDonald’s style packaging to increase ‘efficiency’ – thereby requiring less staff to wash dishes. This produces unbelievable amounts of waste (pushing the environment down the agenda). The pupils are required to pay for meals using cards, which they have to put credit on first using coin machines. This is so the company can account for every single penny that is spent. The prices of some of the products are outrageous.
In my next school (also PFI), I mentioned the packaging issue to the head dinner lady, and was told it was more ‘economically efficient’ this way.
A local company hoping to sell lunches on-site to pupils during lunch hour (first school) was told that the company owning the dinner service in the school was to have a monopoly on the service. This was despite an earlier assurance made to the local company by the school.
I have also seen cleaners dismissed at will. One employee was fired for being ‘too chatty’.
Since 1992 the government of this country has been involved in the setting up of PFIs in sectors such as roads, hospitals and education.
PFIs are a way of getting capital together through the private sector to build new school buildings to replace old and outdated structures. The Major and Blair/Brown Governments have been keen to use private capital to fund public programmes. This is an ideological drive with a privatisation agenda behind it.
The Labour Government has thrown a lot of money at education since 1997, and has initiated many public/private partnership reforms to go with it (PFI, Trust Schools, Academies etc). In the case of PFI private companies agree to build new buildings and provide basic services – dinner provision, site upkeep – in return for a fixed sum from the school for a period of 15-30 years. Public money must be provided for the full contract, even if the school closes down (some have!). Theoretically the risk is supposed to be transferred to the private sector, but in reality due to the guaranteed government money it is relatively risk free. Also any profits made later on are not put back into the public purse. It would appear to be a win-win for the private sector.
The attraction of new buildings, new computers, etc, is often what makes governors and school management go for PFI schemes, as it answers a lot of short-term problems. But the school can then be left with huge utility bills and loss of control of key services, as well as damage to staff morale. A lot of trust is placed in the companies by the schools, and staff and governors can often be confused with how the system works, particularly given lack of transparency and accountability from the companies involved. A school that finds itself in the red due to excess bills can end up downsizing, which has a negative impact on pupil learning and staff morale, and flexible working contracts are often introduced. Pupil and staff concerns with PFI in one of my schools were ignored or put to one side. Technically a company or the companies involved - subcontracting is central to PFI - have to achieve certain standards of service, but it is a very grey area.
In March 2009 the government paid two billion pounds to support PFI due to the financial crisis, and some estimates say that overall PFI will cost the taxpayer thirty percent more in the long term. One NHS trust has also had to borrow money to keep up with repayments. George Monbiot has estimated that the public owes £215 billion through PFI schemes, which could damage public finances severely in the future. At present the government keeps PFI debt out of public accounts. Also, half of PFI financed hospitals now complain of financial difficulties.
The Labour Government has said that PFI is the only option available, but one must question whether a one size fits all dogmatic approach is really the best way to deal with key public services.
Watch out for – PFI takeover of the Royal Hospital and Central Library.
*This name has been used to protect colleagues who are under pressure to conform to new work practices.
Websites - Check out Wikipedia and Guardian websites for good information
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