In the late 1970s, Roger Waters, the former bassist and lyricist for the British rock band Pink Floyd, wrote a damning critique of a broken society in The Wall—the band’s 11th studio album and a film of the same name.

A work of fiction, the concept behind The Wall was semiautobiographical and drew partially on Waters’ own experiences growing up in the United Kingdom. He orchestrated distinctive events for the story that shaped a sense of abandonment and isolation in its main character, Pink. Over time, Pink builds a metaphorical barrier between himself and the world, leading to the album’s most famous line: “All in all you’re just another brick in the wall.”

Inequality and an excessively rigid education system feature prominently in The Wall. A connection between Pink’s personal deterioration through the building of a metaphorical barrier and the outmoded, aging bricks and mortar of Britain’s post-World War II education sector can’t be ignored.

The facility matters

Schools are institutions designed to make the most of our human capital. While learning is about much more than the physical environment in which it takes place, the chances for success clearly improve when students have access to appropriate and well-managed facilities. If education is about planting the seeds of knowledge within the fertile minds of youth, then creating the right environment to best facilitate learning should be a high priority for governments. Irrigation, fertilizer, and pest control aren’t required to make a seed grow; but managed correctly, these techniques will increase crop yields. They also require more up front capital investment.

In these times of global austerity—when politicians around the world speak of prioritizing “economic infrastructure” or revenue-generating projects that may effectively fund themselves—financing the social fabric of our communities with public money is increasingly more challenging. This is where public-private partnerships (PPPs) can help.

Society must understand the difference between what it wants, and what it needs.

Since 2005, Infrastructure Journal has tracked more than 200 closed transactions funding PPPs in education. One hundred and fifty of these deals have been in the United Kingdom. Although Roger Waters had nothing to do with the creation of the private finance initiative (or PFI, for which we can thank John Major), his bitter observations on the U.K.’s education system in The Wall were not isolated. British citizens eventually came to the conclusion that they had underinvested in publicly-funded schools (not to be confused with “public schools,” a term commonly used in England and Wales to refer to wealthier independent or private schools).

Building buildings

Building Schools for the Future (BSF) was the previous U.K. government’s ambitious £55 billion master plan to rehabilitate its entire secondary school estate and tackle perceived inequality within the state education system. The worst facilities—often those in poorer urban areas—were given top priority and were among the first to receive investment when the program was launched in 2005.

The delivery of the BSF program was overseen by Partnerships for Schools, a non-departmental public body formed through a joint venture between the Department for Children, Schools and Families (formerly the Department for Education and Skills), Partnerships UK (which was later shoehorned into the Treasury and rebranded Infrastructure UK), and various private sector partners.

The first guy through the wall always gets bloody, and the U.K.’s BSF experience was not without its bruises. Each project was designed and procured individually, and local authorities in those first few waves of the program lacked the management expertise and capacity to oversee such ambitious projects. The complex levels of bureaucracy added to costly delays until eventually the procurement process was amended to eliminate capital waste and speed up delivery.

When the current coalition government came to power in 2010, the new Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove—a vocal critic of PFI—acted quickly and controversially to shut down the BSF program. He cancelled all projects not yet at the preferred bidder stage, sparking a legal battle with some of the local councils of the more than 1,000 schools yet to be built.

Looking back at its legacy, BSF and the Primary Capital Programme for primary schools did deliver billions of pounds of private investment for U.K. schools in a relatively short period of time. By June 2010, 178 schools had been rebuilt or refurbished, and 231 projects were under or entering the construction phase. The program had cost roughly £5 billion.

Excellence came at a steep price; the country’s current political leaders have termed it extortion.

Lessons learned

What might the rest of the world gather from that experience?

First and foremost, society must understand the difference between what it wants, and what it needs. The U.K. program delivered some fantastic and uniquely-designed learning facilities—easily some of the best publicly-funded primary and secondary school infrastructure in the world. However, such excellence came at a steep price; the country’s current political leaders have termed it extortion.

The United Kingdom has learned its lessons and is evolving the model it helped invent. At the time of writing, the British public is patiently awaiting further details on the country’s next generation of PPP as well as Gove’s chosen successor to BSF, a £3 billion priority schools building program. Other markets around the world have adapted the British PFI model to meet their own internal needs.

Education is one of the critical building blocks of a productive society, and BSF schools were ambitiously designed to inspire learning. If governments get it right, then future generations will pay dividends. If they get it wrong, then they’re simply adding bricks to the wall.