Kick PPP/PFI out of schools

A recent report by the Northern Ireland Audit Office (“School Design and Delivery”) has revealed further mismanagement in Caitriona Ruane’s Department of Education. In the five years up to April 2010, there was massive under-spending on the maintenance and improvement of school buildings and grounds. Out of a budget of £1.21 billion over this period, £353 million was simply sent back to the Treasury.

This report comes at a time when schools are being closed and new build projects are being cancelled by Ruane’s Department due to “lack of funds”. In July this year, eight planned new school buildings were simply scrapped. Another 67 – some of which were announced as far back as 2003 – are still awaiting funding. These new buildings are needed to cope with “serious accommodation pressures”, according to the report, with 1,500 classrooms across the North being in temporary mobiles. There is also a maintenance backlog estimated at £292 million.

Much of the money that is being spent on school buildings and maintenance ends up in the profits of the construction bosses. The report highlights it is now policy that all new builds are funded on the basis of “public private partnerships” (PPP) and “private finance initiatives” (PFI) – where private companies build and manage school buildings for multi-million pound contracts over decades. In schools alone, more than £100 million has been awarded by the Assembly Executive to private companies via PPP/PFI. The end result is private companies make big profits, instead of money being invested into education. A 2004 report, ‘Building for the Future’, showed that PFI schools were inferior in terms of design and quality of materials used, sometimes to the point of being unsafe. Correcting these problems, many of which remain, simply means more public money for the companies which created them!

These problems are only going to get worse with the assault on public spending which Ruane and the Executive as a whole are signed up to. £22 million has been cut from the education budget in this year alone, undermining young people’s futures. The trade union movement must launch a fight-back – alongside students, parents and local communities – for massive investment into school facilities, based on democratic planning, not bureaucratic mismanagement and privatisation.

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