Building Schools for the Future – Its flaws and how the coalition should respond

Thomas Byrne

11th Jul 2010

Despite claims to the contrary from the Labour party, it is simply not true that the scrapping of Building Schools for the Future was a breaking of a promise made by George Osborne not to cut the totals of capital spending. A casual glance towards the actual budget would make it clear: the Government will make no further cuts to capital spending compared with the plans that it inherited. It did make clear, however, that it would undertake a fundamental review of all capital spending plans to ensure they are affordable and to identify the areas of spending that will achieve the greatest economic returns. Michael Gove made it clear in his statement to the house that he was cancelling the approach of BSF because it was an expensive, long winded and inefficient way of building schools. He did not say he was cancelling all new schools building. According to the actual figures the Coalition government is going to spend as much on new capital projects as the outgoing Labour government, in that case they might end up building more schools than Labour for the same amount of money.

Looking at the cost of the programme in February 2004, the DCSF said that 200 schools would be built by 2008. In fact only 42 (just under a quarter) were ready in that timescale. The National Audit Office estimates that the overall cost of the programme has also increased by 16-23% in real terms, with delays being more and more frequent over the years it has been in place, in 2007, in a memorandum to the Select Committee for Education and Skills, the Government admitted: “There has been significant slippage in BSF projects in waves 1-3, with the majority of projects behind the ideal project timelines, an understatement given the actual number of these schools that have been opened , and recently Nottinghamshire county council spent £5 million on the scheme without a single brick being laid, another report by the Public Accounts Select Committee found that “the Department and PfS has wasted public money by relying on consultants to make up for shortfalls in its own skills and resources.” Has the Labour obsession with stocking up on masses of consultants been the driving factor around high cost and low results? The current approach isn’t good for school buildings, this isn’t good for the public finances, and it isn’t good for the both the children and teachers in any school across the country. Nor is it good for the people in the local area who object to some of the proposals made , a number of schools that local areas wanted to keep open or refurbish have been demolished. The Victorian Society says that a number of fine Victorian schools have either been demolished or taken out of use as a result of the programme. Many local authorities as well as a large number of other senior figures working on BSF have expressed concerns about the role of Partnerships for Schools (PfS) – the quango charged with delivering the BSF programme. One described them as “marching round the country in their jackboots, telling local authorities what to do” One example of which being that schools that were using BSf funds had to use 10% of the sizeable budget for computers and other technology, despite the spurious evidence it improves standards, and not being clearly taught how to use it (A common feature of all my old lessons.)

Why should we persist with an expensive bureaucratic programme which tramples on any concerns that don’t correspond with the wishes of Ed Balls? Some headteachers have said they had feared that their funding might be jeopardised if they were critical publicly of a programme representing such powerful interests, no-one denies that we need to build more schools, no-one denies that some schools need to be refurbished, but we can do this in a much better way, which some Tory MPs should attempt to understand.

As well as stamping out the message that has been blared out in the media that there will be ‘no new schools’ the coalition need to also quash the outlandish claims from the Labour party that BSF improved school standards, BSF is a bit like buying a new TV – the new set looks great when you put in the corner of your sitting room, but it’s the programmes that actually make you want to keep coming back for more – and after a while, you forget that you have even got a new telly! If the programmes haven’t improved in the meantime, everything goes back to how it used to be. The Labour party have repeatedly said that BSF is not just a “bricks and mortar programme” and that the buildings programme should act as a “catalyst” for wider scale “educational transformation”, they’ve attempted to define “educational transformation” many times, yet its definition has always been unclear. One senior advisor and former headteacher felt that the coupling of new buildings with “transformation” meant we might be erecting the 21st century equivalent of Victorian follies, saying: “I think there is a danger that we will build chrome and glass edifices to the egos of certain headteachers.” (Which judging by the treatment given to alocal headteacher that lent a lot of support for the Labour party in exchange for a glass palace may well be true.)

It isn’t just speculation that pours cold water on the claims that BSF drastically improved standards. An exhaustive report for the Design Council found “clear evidence that extremes of environmental elements (for example, poor ventilation or excessive noise) have negative effects on students and teachers and that improving these elements has significant benefits. However, once school environments come up to minimum standards, the evidence of effect is less clearcut. Our evaluation suggests that the nature of the improvements made in schools may have less to do with the specific element chosen for change than with how the process of change is managed.” PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC) for the Government in its first evaluation of BSF in 2007 following a review of the literature in the US and the UK this report concluded that, while there was a clear negative impact of poor design on attainment, the claim that good design brings benefits needed to be tested further in the BSF programme because the causality could not be proved. Other factors affecting attainment are, unsurprisingly, school leadership, pedagogical factors, socio-cultural factors and the curriculum. Its second evaluation, published in January 2009, reinforced this view: “In the statistical analysis of the impact of capital expenditure on pupil attainment, our results mirror the existing literature in not finding a strong correlation between the two. The results as a whole suggest a positive impact of capital on attainment, but the magnitude is likely to be very small. We also found evidence for considerable diminishing returns to capital investment.”

The coalition must stress that pedagogical factors that were mentioned in the PSC review are going to be tackled through the introduction of ‘Free Schools’ and the expansion of the Academy programme which will allow for different styles of teaching to thrive, rather than focus on school buildings like the Labour party will insist on doing as it is the most obvious thing to attack , it’s key to highlight that Ofsted recently failed one of the first schools to be built through the BSF programme, Sandon High, in Stokeon- Trent, to give weight to the idea that other things must be tackled other than buildings, and can achieve emphasis on different style of teaching through holding up examples like Toby Young’s grammar comprehensive, and Lord Young’s technical colleges . We must stress the waste of money and the use of consultants, the crippling of autonomy of teachers, and constantly remind as to what benefits these new schools can bring.

We base our results on what our children learn, not the number of glass palaces we claim (and fail!) to build, and as for Gove’s delivery when he announced the policy? Well, there may well have been some stichup on the way….

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