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Education chief threatens Pimlico over PFI stalemate

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Education and employment secretary Jacqui Smith has applied some firm pressure on the governors of Pimlico School to try and convince them to back the pfi rebuild project and allow the demolition of the acclaimed 1970 building.

Smith has written to Pimlico's chair of governors, Europe Singh, to again voice her department's support for the controversial Ellis Williams-designed replacement school and luxury flats. But she adds that she has met with Westminster City Council leader Mervyn Caplin and director of education John Harris, who complained that 'problems in progressing the project were impacting adversely on the school's ability to perform its core educational functions.' Smith discussed the matter with education secretary David Blunkett.

'We continue to believe that the pfi rebuild scheme is the best way forward, and offers the chance to equip the school to meet long-term curriculum requirements in ways which alternative options cannot,' wrote Smith. 'The department therefore reconfirms its support for the project and its wish to see the final contract signed without further delay.'

In order to pull strings for the scheme, Smith says she aims to seek Treasury approval for an extension beyond 31 March 2000 of the £25 million pfi credit allocation which the Government earmarked to fund the project. Smith added that her department is now 'minded' to bend rules and give consent to the disposal of playing fields if an 'appropriate' pfi contract is entered into, the funding for which partly depends on disposal of part of the playing fields. And the dfee is also 'minded' to direct that the school be taken to conform to the minimum team game playing-field requirements provided the pfi project gives rise to the sports facilities described in the project proposal.

There is also an implied threat in the letter of a higher action on the teaching staff, with some governors fearing an emergency ofsted raid. 'I believe that it is possible for the transition phase of the pfi project to be managed in such a way as to allow the school to continue functioning acceptably, and I want the governing body to be closely involved in the final contract negotiations to achieve this end,' Smith added.

Chairman of the governors Europe Singh has written back to Smith seeking an urgent meeting and urging her not to seek the credit approval and repeating the governors' opposition. 'Clearly their tactic is to pressure us to accept this on the basis that it's a tina - There Is No Alternative' he said. 'It's all doom and gloom on no evidence - the building is not falling down and the school is not failing, quite the opposite.'

Smith said in her letter she would allow time for comments, but Singh was unable to call a meeting since it went to the school - which was closed for the holidays. Although sent on 21 December 1999, he received it seven days before comments were due on 14 January. Singh initially wrote to the minister six months ago.

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