Council seeks PFI safety assurances after Scottish schools closure

Council seeks PFI safety assurances after Scottish schools closure

A council in England has sought reassurances over the safety of its PFI schools that were built by the same firm behind the collapsed school in Scotland.

Leicester City Council said it has been reassured that 20 of its schools built under private finance initiatives are safe, but has said it is keeping the situation “under review”.

The schools were built under a private finance initiative by Miller Construction – the firm that built schools in Edinburgh found to have serious safety problems after the wall of one school collapsed.

A total of 17 schools across Scotland have now had to be closed after inspections found several had faults – leaving 7,000 pupils unable to return from the Easter break.

The saga has put private finance initiatives back in the spotlight. An investigation by Schools Week last month revealed how the deals are also causing problems in the UK.

Edinburgh council has now said it is refusing to pay its latest £1.5m installment for the contract. Politicians have also called for an urgent review of the deals.

A Leicester council spokesperson said: “We have received assurance from Galliford Try [the firm that now runs the PFI contract] that schools built under the Leicester Miller Education Company are not affected by the faults reported in Edinburgh.

“The schools built under Miller in Leicester were built to a different design and used different contractors and supply chains to those involved in the construction of the Edinburgh schools.”

The council said it has appointed its own clerk to oversee all aspects of construction and building inspection. The spokesperson added: “We will keep the matter under review but do not foresee the need to close any schools.”

More than 20 schools were rebuilt with £350 million of investment under the Building Schools for the Future programme in 2007.

A spokesperson for Galliford Try – the firm that bought Miller Construction in 2014 – said: “Galliford Try has reassured representatives from Leicester City Council that we have no reason to believe any of the schools built under the BSF programme have any structural issues.”

Schools are tied into contracts of up to 30 years to pay back the private firms that built their schools.

But Schools Week has revealed the rising repayments have put off some academy trusts from taking over struggling schools, and delaying the conversion of others.

In total, taxpayers still owe £22 billion over the remaining years of contracts to repay school builds. That equates to every state school in England having to pay more than £1 million to clear the debt.

Meanwhile, the firms that built the schools have made multi-million pound profits by flipping their stake in the contracts. While one council had to axe swimming lessons for pupils to fund a PFI blackhole, one firm with stakes in PFI contracts posted a yearly profit of more than £6 million.

After our investigation, education secretary Nicky Morgan revealed she had instructed a team of lawyers to probe if they could unpick the contracts to save cash.

But she said: “They are, unfortunately, incredibly watertight, but I do appreciate the huge pressure that they put on different schools’ budgets.”