“Ask me my three main priorities for Government and I tell you – education, education and education” said Tony Blair. With the previous Labour government’s £55bn plan to build and refurbish schools being effectively halted by Education Secretary Michael Gove this week, you could be forgiven for thinking that modern, fit-for-purpose education was the last thing on this Government’s mind.
The truth is, the Building Schools for the Future programme was a curate’s egg; good in some parts, bad in others. I’ve heard the arguments for scrapping it – inflated salaries for the army of ‘consultants’ involved; rigid inflexibility over design and build; the incompetence of the kwango presiding over the programme, Partnerships for Schools, whose own Chief Executive earned more than the Prime Minister. But let’s not forget, this was the only game in town, and for authorities whose school stock suffered from years of underinvestment, this was a chance to bring classrooms into the 21st Century; a rare opportunity to deliver the very best education for tomorrow’s citizens.
And whilst I can well appreciate that this coalition Government needs to demonstrate a diamond-hard resolve, was it really sensible for Michael Gove to publish a list of hundreds of schools whose projects were now to be ‘stopped’? We’re now left with a ‘them and us’ culture where half the BSF projects will run their course, however shambolic and inefficient that may be, whilst the other half are scrapped.
A couple of things occur to me. What about the contractors? Architects, builders, technology consultants; all spent a not inconsiderable sum on working up tenders and ‘selling’ their skills to be a part of this bonanza. What now? How do they get their investment back? Will they seek legal redress? And again, who from? Council or Government?
And what about the much-vaunted Academies Programme? I understand the structure for many new Academies was that a philanthropic local individual or organisation would put up around £2m towards a project, and the Government would put in up to £20m more. If you had put in a million or two and the project had now been cancelled, wouldn’t you now be asking for your money back? What if it’s been spent on plans and designs? And just who is responsible for paying you back? Local education authority or Government?
The underlying argument around process and best value is surely a good reason to have questioned the BSF programme. But the way in which the decision has been enacted may well mean that, in some cases, it would have been cheaper to allow these projects to go ahead, rather than gamble the fledgling Government’s reputation and potentially years of expensive legal proceedings which could now follow.