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Audit quango hammers PFI design

One of the government's most influential quangos has concluded that there are 'major problems' in the design of PFI schools, in a report that undermines New Labour's favoured procurement policy.

The Audit Commission document - PFI in Schools - found that schools built using the private finance method are 'considerably poorer' than those using the old system.

And Building Research Establishment scientists working on the 60-page report stressed that quality of architecture provides the major difference between the 20 sample schools investigated.

The report says there were 'very few examples of innovation found, and of those, all were in the traditionally funded schools'.

The report gave each of the buildings assessed a score out of five for architectural merit, and PFI schools averaged only 1.8, while traditional schools were given three.

Author Dick Waite told the AJ that researchers found the differences so obvious that they could tell in a 'blind test' which schools were PFI and which were not. 'The simple fact is that the design of these schools is poorer, ' he said. 'There really is a noticeable difference between PFI schools and the rest.'

Waite highlighted major architectural problems throughout PFI schools, including the size of classrooms, corridor space, circulation and storage for coats and books.

'The government needs to look at the whole nature of the build-up time on these projects, the lead-in work and the importance given to design, ' he added.

CABE commissioner Richard Feilden welcomed the publication, describing it as 'highly courageous' and 'a document that will make government decision makers sit up and take note'.

The report, he said, highlights flaws that many in the profession have already attempted to draw to the attention of the government.

'It is simply very important that the government realises all is far from perfect in the PFI world, ' he said.

'The really worrying thing is that even the schools which were procured traditionally were also found to be far from perfect, ' Feilden added.

'It is going to be a long time before we manage to get decent schools built in this country.'

And Aedas AHR director Brian Johnson, who is currently running a contract to design 122 PFI schools in Stoke-on-Trent, agreed that the report was worrying. 'The criticism in the report is valid, ' he said. 'It is important that there are changes made to the process in relation to good design.'

The Department for Education and Skills was unprepared to comment on the report's conclusions before its official launch this morning.

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