A new study by accountancy firm KPMG says pupils in schools built through PFI do better than those in conventionally funded schools. But what do those at the frontline think? Emily Wright spoke to two headmasters with rather different ideas on the best way to build our schools. Now stop talking at the back and pay attention…

'I wouldn't touch it with a bargepole' - 0/10

Stephen Chamberlain (left) has been headmaster at the Hollyfield school in Surbiton, Surrey, for 14 years. The school teaches 1,100 11-18 year olds and has undertaken two new build projects in the past six years, both conventionally financed.

"I’d only use the PFI reluctantly. As far as I can see, it means signing away control over the school. Stories from colleagues of maintenance issues taking forever to sort out, and at great cost concern me. There is no way I’d want to go through a third party to get a door fixed. Why put up with all those layers of bureaucracy when, if you’re still in control of your facilities management, it’s a question of a quick call?

As the client on our recent build, we made sure everything was done with the students in mind and grades went up 11 percentage points the year our last build was completed, when 61% of pupils got five A*-C grades. That continued to improve last year and we expect to hit 70% in 2008.

My experiences of building the two new blocks here have been great. The first was a maths block which was due to have five new classrooms. We managed to get a sixth out of the funding available through careful planning – something we would have had no control over under the PFI. The second build was a £3m block and our contractor went into administration in the middle. The local authority was superb and a new contractor was swiftly approved and work resumed. PFI schools using that same contractor were left as half-built shells for months.

Losing control is the worst thing you can do in terms of students’ welfare and performance. The PFI may be easier but I don’t want to be one of those saying ‘I won’t worry my pretty little head about it’ and then end up with a system where I can’t get anything done without going through a third party.

If PFI was the only way to get new buildings for my school, I should have to swallow the pill. Other than that I wouldn’t touch it with a bargepole.”

‘There is only one choice’ - 9/10

Neil Dyment (right) has been headmaster at Weatherhead High School Media Arts College in Wallasey, Liverpool, for two years. The comprehensive for 11-18 year olds has 1,500 pupils. The school was rebuilt and relocated in 2003 using the PFI.

"PFI has delivered here. We have a great new school and successful students. As a head teacher if someone said to me, "You can have a new building through PFI next year or wait 15 years until it can be financed traditionally”, there is only one choice.

Our new build was completed in 2003. It brought the school onto one site from three. There was a significant degree of planning required to move all the students and staff onto the new site and it went extremely smoothly. I don’t believe any of this would have gone so well if this hadn’t been a PFI project because it was being managed as part of a team and wasn’t just down to the school to sort out alone.

GCSE grades here have shot up from 58% five A*-C grades to 71% and the new building has been significant in relation to that improvement. The facilities are much more effective and pleasant for the students and staff and an improvement in staff retention means students have had more continuity.

We have a fantastic new performance hall, better areas for the students to spend time in both in and out of lessons and a great canteen. The PFI ensured the project was handled smoothly, completed promptly and to the highest standard. Without it, I couldn’t say whether we would be seeing these great results today.

We have worked very well alongside Land Securities Trillium on the build. It’s a partnership and I never felt like I have lost any sort of control as a result of going through the PFI.

We are going from strength to strength now. We had a very positive Ofsted inspection in January, intake numbers are up, as are grades; staff are happier, the students are certainly happier and I am happier."

What the KPMG research says:

The KMPG report, Investment in School Facilities and PFI – Do they Play a Role in Educational Outcomes? was based on a study of 2,876 secondary schools and published in March. These are its main findings:

  • Educational attainment improves 20% faster in renewed PFI schools than in renewed conventionally financed schools
  • When comparing fully rebuilt school facilities against fully rebuilt conventionally financed schools, the speed of improvement in educational attainment was 92% faster in PFI schools
  • If two schools are fully rebuilt, one using PFI and one conventionally financed, there is a 90% chance that the PFI school will improve educational outcomes faster
  • Rates of improvement among students over a six year period (three years before to three year after the work) is 0.7 of a percentage point in conventionally financed schools and 1.8 percentage points in PFI schools

According to the report One possible explanation for the superior performance of PFI might be a reduction in the amount of disruption caused by construction. Private sector partners in PFI schools have financial incentives to make the construction period as short as possible in order to accelerate the start of payment for the school.

Another possible factor could be the presence of private sector personnel within the premises. The facilities management controller has an incentive to enforce and preserve the integrity of the school building otherwise they may be exposed to financial penalties. This might translate into a more sustainable environment conducive to improved attainment.