The collapse of the construction company Carillion has brought into public gaze the question of how public services should be financed and delivered. Education is certainly not immune from these questions. Hard on the heels of Carillion’s collapse is a National Audit Office (NAO) report on the Public Finance Initiative (PFI), which contracts private companies to build public facilities, such as schools and hospitals, in return for regular payments over decades – in some cases up to 30 years.
PFI was attractive to the politicians because it kept the costs incurred in building new schools and hospitals, new roads and other public infrastructure off of the government’s balance book.
What was not factored into successive governments’ equations, was the cost of PFI projects, which the NAO now concludes, are extremely expensive. Schools, for example, cost 40 per cent more when built under PFI contracts than those financed by government borrowing. This eye-watering figure does not include the charges made by PFI companies to maintain schools. These can be horrendous – £2,000 being charged to install, and maintain, a sink; £8,000 to fit and maintain a window blind are just two examples – there are many more.