09 October 2009 | Allie Anderson
Lancashire County Council has come under fire over the cost of kitting out classrooms under the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) scheme.
At a meeting last month, head teachers told councillors they could source the same essential items - including desks, chairs and laptops - for a fraction of the cost of buying them though the BSF contract.
Under the terms of the deal, schools are paying as much as £24 for a chair. But school bosses claim identical chairs are available from the same supplier for only £9 each through the Lancashire Purchasing Agency, through which non-BSF schools buy their equipment.
The government's BSF programme aims to renew all 3,500 English secondary schools between 2005 and 2020, subject to spending plans. It plans to entirely rebuild half, "structurally remodel" 35 per cent, and refurbish the rest (which includes providing new information and communication technologies (ICT)).
Lancashire selected Catalyst Lend Lease as its BSF partner, and subsidiaries of Catalyst are responsible for managing the schools over the course of the 25-year contract. This includes sourcing, maintaining and replacing furniture and equipment, supplying and managing ICT services and facilities management. Seven of Lancashire's 83 secondary schools currently come under the BSF programme.
Council officials are now investigating whether they are getting best value from the BSF programme and will present their findings to the Lancashire Association of Secondary School Head Teachers on 9 November.
Speaking to SM
, John Ferris, BSF project manager for Lancashire County Council, said: "We need to look at what we are paying for equipment and compare that with what we would pay through other means."
Asked if this should have been undertaken at the start of the contract, Ferris said: "The obvious answer to that is 'yes'."
He added: "We haven't done an exercise yet where we have asked, 'Could we buy that piece of furniture through other sources available to the authority at a lower cost?' We have gone for a quality cost mix and, at the time, we felt what we were paying for these things was acceptable."
In addition to the initial price of equipment, the contract includes costs (which are calculated and paid for annually) to cover the regular replacement of items regardless of condition.
A spokesperson from Catalyst Lend Lease, said: "Prices quoted reflect not just the initial cost of the furniture but also delivery, installation, replacement or refurbishment over the 25-year duration of our BSF contract with the county council and any insurance implications. All those ongoing costs are met by Catalyst Lend Lease, not by the school or the education authority.
"We were required to demonstrate best value in our procurement practices when we won this contract and we have to continue to demonstrate best value as a condition of our contract with the county council."
A head teacher of one of the seven schools in the BSF programme said one of Catalyst's subsidiaries quoted £3,500 for curtains, plus additional annual charges to cover replacing them in seven years time.
"My last set of curtains was up for over 20 years," he told SM
. "We have a culture in my school where we look after things so they last. If I bought the curtains myself they would still cost the same but I wouldn't have the annual charges on top. This obviously raises questions over whether the contract delivers best value for money."
Pat Case, Lancashire council's cabinet member for children and schools, said: "We take value for money very seriously and we are working hard with our partner to ensure the BSF reflects this."