The head taking on PFI firms over new school ‘riddled’ with leaks

Newman RC College held back funds from PFI firms and threatened legal action against a council over repeated building woes

Newman RC College held back funds from PFI firms and threatened legal action against a council over repeated building woes

11 Mar 2022, 17:00

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Newman Roman Catholic College boasts a slick, curved exterior of floor-to-ceiling glass, a vast glazed roof over its atrium and canteen, and gleaming white corridors flooded with light.

Opened in 2012, the school seems a poster child for the success of private finance initiatives – the “buy now, pay later” deals used to build and maintain hundreds of schools in recent decades.

But on closer inspection, the £33 million voluntary-aided secondary is an example of such deals at their worst. And now the headteacher is fighting back.

‘We anticipate problems most days’

Glyn Potts said the large school had been “riddled” with leaks and other issues over the past decade.

“We anticipate problems most days,” he said, showing Schools Week the buckets and dozens of patched-up or water-stained parts of ceilings, walls or glass throughout the corridors.

“There are multiple drops along this route, which means children stepping over or coming through water.” One busy stairwell had three buckets. Potts said: “Whenever it rains, I’m caught between risking a child slipping and shutting the stairs.”

Several ceiling tiles are missing, which Potts said had either fallen from water above or been removed to prevent collapse.

One fire door would not easily shut. Light peeped through the bottom even when closed. “Water’s swelling the wood on doors,” he added.

Leaks affect classrooms and offices too. A staff member said their room had been emptied three times to avoid them.

GCSE artwork ‘ruined by radiator explosion’

Potts showed further evidence documented by staff.

One video shows brown water descending like a sprinkler, with six buckets out and crumpled tiles on the floor.

A second shows more broken tiles in a classroom, with eight missing and half the floor covered in water.

A third shows winding queues for the only staircase after water forced another to close.

A fountain of water spurts from a radiator in another clip, the surrounding floor and a box of papers half-submerged.

Yet another video shows two giant blue bins and wet floors in an exam room. Some GCSE artwork was “ruined as radiators exploded above them”, Potts said. Books are no longer stored by some classroom windows to avoid damage.

Potts claimed there were still more than 60 leaks overall, though the figure is disputed.

School takes on firms and council

Governors presented evidence and independent reports to Oldham council late last year, accusing the authority of not challenging PFI firms to fulfil repair duties. They threatened legal action against the council.

Local authorities typically manage contracts on schools’ behalf. Oldham’s is with a subsidiary of the Amber Infrastructure Group, which sub-contracts maintenance to Equans.

Potts said such set-ups made it a battle to get schools’ voices heard, to secure information and to attend meetings.

However, he suggested that his lobbying was paying off, and praised council leaders’ recent efforts.

The school asked them to deduct hundreds of thousands of pounds from several months of regular payments – paying off construction and maintenance costs – over alleged failures.

Council holds back funds over ‘unacceptable’ issues

Shaid Mushtaq, cabinet member for education, said the council had withheld funds, was monitoring improvement plans and doing “everything within its powers” to hold providers accountable. It sympathised with staff and pupils enduring “unacceptable conditions for far too long”, he said. The council would not comment on how much cash had been withheld.

The school is also pushing the council to hand over all deductions, and to take cleaning in house.

An Amber spokesperson said a programme of complex works had recently been agreed, reflecting its “proactive approach” and focus on “the very best service for the end users”.

It said it identified the need for remedial works after buying Newman College from the builders Balfour Beatty in 2016, adding: “We have a longstanding track record of active asset management, particularly through deep engagement with local authority partners and communities we serve.”

The owners pledged to resolve all roof leaks by October 2022.

PFI problems ‘all too typical’

Andrew Chubb, director of ProjectPFI, a consultancy supporting the school’s fight, said that such issues were “all too typical” under PFI deals. “The relationship’s akin to a zero-sum game – the more investment schools receive, the less profit contractors receive.”

Poor value for money led to the government ditching new PFI projects altogether in 2018. A National Audit Office report found many schools paying several times above the odds for insurance, and inflation-busting rises in maintenance costs. Schools Week previously revealed that one school’s bills rose £125,000 in four years.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of ASCL, said leaders needed “robust support” from the government to challenge firms over existing deals.

“I feel very isolated,” said Potts, who wants a DfE helpline and network for leaders of PFI schools. He said he would have struggled without ProjectPFI and the lawyers Browne Jacobson.

Chubb, who co-founded the consultancy after experiencing PFI problems himself as a trust leader, said headteachers’ limited construction experience made it easier to “fob them off”.

A DfE spokesperson said it helped all schools and councils with PFI “challenges”, including Oldham.

Equans was approached for comment.

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