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Michael Gove admits to delays in North-East school rebuilding
MICHAEL Gove has admitted to further delays to desperately-needed school rebuilding schemes in the North-East – just weeks after his officials insisted they were “on track”.
In a letter, the Education Secretary has warned the plans – to revamp up to 15 crumbling schools across the region – are “complex” and will have to be changed.
As a result, a commitment to seek private finance before the summer has been dropped. That will now take place “as soon as possible”.
And Mr Gove also threw doubt on the promised 2016 completion date – already a 12-month delay on the original plans, announced last summer.
Last night, the head teacher at one of the schools affected, Hetton Secondary School, in Houghton-le-Spring, told of the misery for his staff and pupils.
Drainpipes have fallen from buildings, classrooms have to be shut off when asbestos-laden tiles move on windy days and broken heaters leave pupils shivering.
Phil Keay, Hetton’s head teacher, said: “The phrase crumbling school really does apply to us.
“The other day, a drainpipe literally fell off in front of me and it was fortunate that no student was passing at the time.
“We regularly have heating failures, because it is hard to get hold of parts for old systems, and we have to get experts to test the air when the wind blows through classrooms with asbestos tiles.
“There is absolutely no health scare, but there is great inconvenience caused by having to close down those areas.”
The Northern Echo revealed in January that a private finance initiative (PFI) deal had hit the buffers, throwing the rebuilding schemes into jeopardy.
Also affected are Seaham School of Technology, in County Durham, Shiney Row Primary, also in Houghton-le-Spring - and up to 12 others in the same “batch”.
They were promised help, from a £2.4bn “priority” scheme, after many saw their dreams dashed when the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) scheme was axed in 2010.
But the department for education (Dfe) declined to provide grants for rebuilding – despite including all the schools on a list of the 261 most dilapidated – and insisted on PFI.
The “batch” approach is designed to cut costs and “ensure that the programme can benefit from the best available prices”.
In January, the Dfe described the North-East batch as “on track”, adding: “We are looking at a range of private finance options and expect to come to market shortly after spring.”
But, in a letter to Bridget Phillipson, Labour MP for Houghton and Sunderland South, Mr Gove has revealed the extent of the hold-ups.
Pointing, also, to the end for a new road to be built, Mr Gove wrote: “There are issues that need to be resolved with individual schools before the batch can be released to the market.”
In a return letter, Ms Phillipson has urged Mr Gove to offer further help, warning: “The school's condition is affecting teaching and learning.”
David Cameron has already been dragged into the controversy, agreeing to “have a word with the Education Secretary”, after protests over the delays.
Embarrassingly for Mr Gove, the first batches were supposed to be procured in “late 2012”, but – MPs were told last week – none have yet gone ahead.
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