December 2016


  • Team Player
    National Schools Commissioner Sir David Carter talks to Julie Nightingale about his role in promoting the benefits of academies and why he thinks more schools will come round to his view that they offer the best model for improving children’s education opportunities. More
  • Getting the best out of PFI
    Making your private finance initiative (PFI) contract work for you is about building good relationships and sustaining them but also following some practical steps, says Julia Harnden. More
  • Widen their horizons
    Links with employers can be invaluable in raising young people’s aspirations, and the charity Inspiring the Future can help schools and colleges make those connections, says Charlotte Lightman. More
  • Research insights
    In the second of a regular research insights feature, Amanda Taylor from the Centre for Information and Knowledge at the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) rounds up a selection of recent reports on teacher recruitment and retention. More
  • Learning above all
    Executive Headteacher John Camp explores the leadership challenges of moving from federation to multi-academy trust (MAT) and why a focus on pedagogy, alongside key principles of collaboration, trust and mutual respect, must remain at the heart of the new structure. More
  • Reality check
    The government’s aim of boosting social mobility is laudable but there is no evidence to suggest that an increase in selective education is the way to do it, says Malcolm Trobe. Instead, ministers need to focus on the real solutions. More
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Making your private finance initiative (PFI) contract work for you is about building good relationships and sustaining them but also following some practical steps, says Julia Harnden.

Getting the best out of PFI

Effective working relationships will underpin the success of your PFI contract and go a long way to helping you achieve value for money for your school.

Time invested in making these relationships work will reduce the impact that friction between the people involved can have on teaching and learning and avoid, for example, valuable leadership time being diverted away from delivering high-quality education to solving car park issues.

It is well understood that good communication and use of a common language are important features of self-improving organisational culture so extend these principles to include the school’s PFI partners – and expect them to do the same.

In 2013, the government launched a voluntary code of practice ( that all providers are invited to sign up to. It sets out the basis on which publicsector bodies and their private-sector partners agree to identify and make savings in operational PFI contracts.

Make sure that you understand the contract framework and how the relationship works where reporting mechanisms are concerned. It’s worth remembering that private-sector partners will be accountable to their shareholders and their success criteria are likely to be very different from those of their public-sector colleagues.

Savings achieved through efficiency will only be sustainable if those involved work together to understand each other’s objectives and where there is common ground, and when both sides accept that there are some limitations that cannot be overcome.

Payment mechanisms

The payment mechanisms in PFI contracts are complex and designed to encourage the sub-contractor to deliver in line with a set of specific outcomes. In fact, it gives schools an excellent opportunity to exert some pressure.

While the school will not be named as a contract party it is a representative of the local authority. This position does not change when a maintained school becomes an academy.

One of the criticisms of PFI is the cost to schools of training their own staff to monitor provision and the salary costs of that member of staff for time allocated to this task. In the challenging financial climate, it is essential that the investment made in training school staff as contract managers reaps rewards.

There are many practical steps that can be taken to make sure that the contract is working as efficiently as possible for schools:

1. Monitor service levels against the agreed output specification
The contract includes an output specification that contains details of service level agreements (SLAs). Access these service level agreements and use them to monitor the contract against known expectations rather than a wish list.

2. Use the tools within the contract to drive financial and operational efficiency
The helpdesk function is perhaps the most important tool available for a school to use but very often it is not used to anywhere near its full potential. Quite often a culture change is required to appreciate the potential benefits of a helpdesk function. It provides information about workflow for both the sub-contractor (your facilities management provider) and the school and is the audit trail that will drive deductions (financial penalties) to the unitary charge (see box) for things like unavailability and other performance failures. The helpdesk can only fulfil all of these tasks if it is used to record all the transactions that occur between the school and the contractor. Examples may be:

  • asking a caretaker to move parcels from the reception area to the appropriate resources storage area
  • reporting a leak in a classroom
  • reporting the unavailability of an area of the outside sports facilities
  • requesting to set up exam desks in the hall

Or much larger transactions such as requests for work that falls outside the contract, for example:

  • changing an ordinary classroom into a science lab
  • feasibility study for a capital project

In almost every case a conversation will have happened before the activity is raised as an action on the helpdesk – but without the helpdesk activity log there is no evidence that a conversation took place and no way of measuring the success of the service requested or the response time taken to correct a failure.

3. Effective operations meetings
The member of school staff with responsibility for PFI should have a regular operations meeting with a similarly ranked member of the facilities management company. This meeting is a good time to review helpdesk statistics.

4. In-house auditing of soft services
Invest time in the monitoring of services provided under the contract. Use regular site walks to review different elements of services provided on a rotation basis, such as cleaning or grounds maintenance. Where there are failings, they should be raised on the helpdesk immediately so steps can be taken to remedy the problem or to ensure that a deduction penalty can be imposed.

5. Use the lifecycle plan to support school planning and the school development plan
Work with the provider to understand the lifecycle plan (see box) for your school site. Use what you learn to support school planning. Contract limitations may restrict lifecycle purchases to ‘like for like’ but don’t miss the opportunity to negotiate. Base your persuasive argument on curriculum impact.

6. Use the help desk to identify trends
Use helpdesk statistics to spot trends in damage. It will be evident quite quickly if the introduction of a new initiative has been successful in reducing the incidence of low-level damage. And if the same toilet block is being targeted at the same time each week, this information could be useful to help pastoral staff address a behaviour issue that may not have come to light before.

7. Works outside the scope of the contract
One of the frustrations of PFI is the unwieldy nature of the process to change things in school. Unfortunately, trying to find a workaround is rarely successful and can be expensive.

Instead, involve the Facilities Management provider as soon as you can and issue a very clear set of instructions. It is worth bearing in mind that you will be charged for any feasibility or design work that is undertaken regardless of whether the project goes ahead, so a little preparatory investigation is a good idea to determine what is achievable. Once you are ready to proceed, make sure that the initial instruction includes:

  • a clear and detailed specification
  • budget available
  • request for a shopping-list-style quotation

The Language of PFI

  • Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) – the company set up to deliver the PFI project.
  • Lifecycle cost model – sum of all recurring and non-recurring costs over the full life span of the PFI project.
  • Unitary charge – the annual charge made by the public-sector partner in a PFI contract. The unitary charge covers the cost of asset and services provision for the project; it also includes a charge for the transference of associated risks.

Julia Harnden is ASCL Funding Specialist