Thursday, 29 May 2014

On what is wrong with PFI: An anecdotal case study.

EDIT: Since scribbling this three further points have occurred to me:

1. The school is achieving. The kids seem happy and relaxed in a challenging catchment area. The staff are generally good at their job (only needing my excellent classroom behaviour management skills occasionally!) and appear to enjoy working there - there aren't many TES job papers in the staffroom - a key indicator in any establishment.

2. The relationships between the companies on site IS POOR. Everyone blames someone else.

3. The relationships between the companies on site and the staff IS POOR. The staff find the processes frustrating and complicated. Where is X project billed? Who can help with Y? It's a mess and often nobody has the answer and calls are made to MEGACORPHQ to work out exactly how much more money can be generated from whatever issue there is. That's wasteful and unfair. It creates friction because although the wage slips for a member of school staff and site or IT staff come from different places, their job should be a united front to offer the best environment, resources and teaching that they can. 

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I work in educational IT. A niche field of the sector that has been created to maintain the large, unique networks of computers, servers and software that exist in nearly all schools, colleges and universities in the UK in 2014. As a contractor I work wherever I am needed and have seen, first-hand, how broken the private finance initiative (PFI) model is.

When I moved from the world of technical support in a private company to a school in 2007 I found myself in a largely cooperative environment which I found very refreshing. In short, we helped each other out. The purpose of our being at work was to deliver a service, for me supporting a network of computers, servers and network infrastructure. From time to time my duties would be very different than that! We all helped out.

Need a hand setting up the stage? Audio equipment? Do you mind helping out with Sports Day? Of course! Part and parcel of the job was that we were all part of the life and community of the place we shared for eight (or more) hours a day... sometimes driven by pure passion, sometimes for the variety (who really wants to sit in a small office or freezing cold, air-conditioned server room all that time) and sometimes as a favour, the point is that almost everyone CARED.

Skip to 2014 and I am looking at a very different situation. I am a contractor to a sub contractor in a PFI school. A contractor to a contractor of a contractor. Yeah.

My employer has a contract to supply an IT service to another contractor at the school that manage 'the site'. That employer has over 400,000 employees. EVERYTHING is laid out bare in complicated contracts between all the service providers which state exactly what can be done and who can be involved and this leads to some very messy arrangements that act against the staff and students.

Case in point? The kitchen tills are computers that sit inside another contract. They're not different or difficult to work on and I have been expected to work on this model many times before. I am not allowed to fix them. I have had to explain this, several times, to confused kitchen staff that the company responsible is based 'in the North somewhere' (under yet another contract, as are the cleaning staff). I can't do anything. She can't do anything. Everything grinds to a halt until they send a local contractor to site for anything as simple as a loose cable :(

Her comment? 'This is madness!'. I concur.

If I don't make you want to gouge out your
 ears then I'm not doing my job properly.
When there is a fire alarm drill we are supposed to perform a twenty-five minute shutdown of the core network switches, then remote switches, then physical servers and then the virtual servers. A review of this last week highlighted the fact that it was a ridiculous thing to expect but the sticking point was not the safety of such a policy, but the fact that non-technical staff would require training in this because the contract doesn't fall to the subcontractor, it falls to the mega-contractor of 400,000 employees. I am, suffice to say, completely stunned.

The site closes at 6. Dead on. Everybody out. That's the contract.

I've never worked in a school like it. Teachers need some extra time to plan? Maintenance work is overrunning? After school clubs? It's going to cost. Everything is detailed and billed to the school and it costs them a lot of extra money because it's 'outside the terms of the contract'. This is money being paid, by the government, to a large multi-national corporation which made generates over €20,000,000,000 (seriously, that is the correct number of 0s, I looked it up!) a year. Any wonder. Beginning to get a picture of how this doesn't benefit anyone?

What else does IT normally manage in schools? The MIS, a large central database which deals with the mass of student and staff information in modern schools - registration and attendance, exam grades, behaviour, dietary requirements, health and medication - another contract...

Perhaps the safety of the equipment - the industry standard PA testing (another ATM machine, this one... it's known as a PAT test) - yet another contract!

Printers? Completely outside our management. An outside company has a virtual print server sitting inside the network which manages printing and bills the school for leasing the hardware and supplies the toner and paper. It's an incredibly expensive contract - schools no longer function without large multi-function photocopiers in each of the five IT suites, main office, reprographics room (has two - but these are under ANOTHER contract) and staff room and a high capacity laser printer in every classroom and staff office.

However, something incredibly strange happens when the toner runs out. Take this in and try not to explode with the way that our government is shovelling money into a Fortune Global 500 company. When a toner runs low the school is automatically billed for the cost of a replacement (at their contracted rate), it is shipped and placed into storage so that there is always a stock of toner in the school for every printer. This is in spite of the fact that there are only two models. Crazy? This is what then happens when it runs out. The member of staff alerts the central helpdesk (call centre) and they raise a job to the company I am contracting for who accept and then bill the company for picking the toner up off a shelf, walking the two or three minutes to the classroom or office, lifting the lid, removing the old and installing the new. The cost? £50.

£50 to install a toner.

As my colleague so rightly pointed out upon learning this, 'Someone is definitely raking it in'. 

The coffee and water machines? They're a subcontractor.

The grass, trees and shrubs? Another.

So, I do my best. I work as hard as I can on what I'm allowed to but constantly find that I walk a fine line of not stepping over the parameters of the strict contracts in place. Gone is the flexibility. Gone are the interesting projects and collaborations with other departments. The staff in each area of support are there to perform a set of basic functions.

I used to run the Breakfast Club in the mornings. I used to help out with Science Club after school. Interested and interesting teachers (you know who you are, Jim, Graham...) would come to me with ideas and projects and we'd use the resources available to make things happen. I wouldn't look at them like a shifty builder or mechanic, shoot a glance and declare, 'Oooh. That's gonna cost ya!'. This is what I'm observing and it sucks.

I'm not the only one in this position and that's simply not good for the school.

Too many cooks...

Too many fingers in pies...

I've seen how broken it all is, from the inside, and I want to cry.


  1. Do we know the names at the top of the tree?

    1. Yes. I decided not to name and shame. They're one of the biggest.