Schools needing renovation will be allowed to hire private contractors in an attempt to cut red tape, the education chief said. At present, schools qualifying for renovation or redevelopment under the School Improvement Programme have to go through various government departments beforehand, including lands, architectural services and buildings. That can now change, according to Director of Education Matthew Cheung Kin-chung. 'Major school sponsoring bodies can handle the projects themselves,' he said. 'The advantage is that they know what they want and can integrate their vision into the campus design.' Schools hoping to add extra facilities to the Government's design, such as a swimming pool or a larger music hall, can do so within the government allocation or through fund-raising. Mr Cheung said talks with the Works Bureau and Treasury were being held to sort out the details, including allocation of money. The Po Leung Kuk, a leading founding group that has about 10 schools waiting to be upgraded, welcomed the move. 'It will speed up the process a lot since it's our own project,' kuk principal education secretary Kenneth Mak Kwai-po said. Mr Cheung has written to the various departments involved in the renovation programme, urging them to treat the projects with priority. Schools opting for the existing system rather than hiring their own contractors will have procedures streamlined. The Lands Department, which is responsible for the approval of land use, has agreed to cut the vetting period from 31 weeks to 18, and the Architectural Services Department has promised to reduce the time needed for piling by four months. Launched in 1992, the School Improvement Programme aims to bring old campuses up to date and has so far dealt with 400 of about 900 schools scheduled for upgrading, at a cost of $5.7 billion. The programme came to a halt this year as costs were running too high. The Education Department has since placed a cap on expenditure on work for each school at $42 million - 42 per cent of the cost of a new school. Schools requiring more than that will be rebuilt completely or relocated. Feasibility studies are being conducted on 358 schools scheduled for upgrades by the 2004/05 school year, with $12 billion set aside for the purpose. Mr Cheung said the need to find new sites for relocating existing schools would not delay the building of more primary schools to meet the plan for 100 per cent whole-day schooling by 2007.