COMMENT: PFI schools future in doubt

Around a week ago, Knowsley County Council warned that they may have to shut down Christ the King School in Huyton, only 2 years after it was hailed as 'more than just a school' and the 'first piece of the biggest transformation of education in the borough for two generations' by the then Education Secretary, Ed Balls. The reason that this has happened, it would appear, is because the school authorities couldn't fill its 900 pupil capacity.

Now, this is a bad enough situation as it is, given the upheaval anticipated for teachers, pupils and parents as well as the surrounding community. However, Christ the King is also part of the Building Schools for the Future Programme, which has leant itself extensively to the use of Private Finance Initiative (PFI). PFI, in case you are unaware, is another method by which governments have, in recent years, sought to syphon off large sums of taxpayers money into the hands of private businesses. School needs building. Private company builds the school. Local Education Authority pays the company back over an agreed time frame (usually 25 years), with interest, of course. 

On the up side, this has allowed the last Labour government to substantially rebuild many of England's dilapidated school buildings left after the chronic under investment of successive Tory governments. On the down side, this has meant massive interest payments to local authorities, and the increased trade given to large private firms meaning they consolidate their monopoly positions in the market. But what happens when a PFI school closes down?
Well, if Christ the King were to shut down for example, Knowsley Council will, in all likelihood, still be left to find the repayments on the remainder of the contract . A disastrous prospect for all those involved, except for the constructor, who will still receive their regular payments.  

But what of the alternative to PFI? Schools across the country, despite the investment, are still in need of repairs and in some instances, knocking down altogether. For an example of what could be possible, we could look across the border to Wales. Although by no means a perfect system, for nearly a decade now since the establishment of the Welsh Assembly, politicians in Cardiff Bay have attempted to bypass the need for PFI by committing ever increasing parts of the devolved budget towards school buildings. Local Education Authorities (LEAs) have been guaranteed a portion of income, which is ring fenced, towards substantial building work. Although PFI has not been discarded outright, LEAs in Wales have been reluctant to go down this route, not only because of the experiences of English authorities, but because they know they have a guaranteed source of income from regional government. Examples of what can be achieved are numerous, but one which is worth mentioning, is Ysgol Ynysowen in Aberfan. This school cost just over £5m, and was paid for, almost in its entirety by the Assembly's School Buildings Improvement Fund.   

As Communists, we should seek to argue against the use of PFI or indeed any transgressions by private companies into the education sphere, for example Academies or Free schools, which will further exacerbate situations like those in Knowsley. Our education system should be democraticly accountable to the people via their local councils and should seek to make the most effective use of their capital through state funding. Taxes should be raised on those individuals in highest income brackets and on the most profitable businesses to pay for these developments