The Lib Dems’ education policy sounds promising. But, like the other parties, they’re remaining ominously quiet about capital investment
First, I must admit that I am not a particularly political person. I have always remained a rather passive, but somewhat disillusioned, bystander as our chosen representatives have consistently demonstrated their distinct lack of moral fibre and integrity.
But even the most apolitical individual could not be struck by the meteoric rise of Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats. His performance on the first leaders’ debate dominated the start of this election campaign, with the polls unanimously declaring him the runaway winner of this historic debate. The “Clegg effect” has been cited as the main reason for a large bounce in the opinion polls for the Liberal Democrats, which, when this article went to press, had survived a second debate and a smear campaign by the right-wing press.
So I thought it was about time I examined his education policies to see what all this might mean for an architect who has specialised in the education sector over the past six years. Education is a cornerstone of the Liberal Democrats’ campaign, with the noble aim of creating “a fair chance for every child” forming one of the key pillars of their manifesto. Promising stuff. Furthermore, they have committed to protect frontline education spending and to provide schools with a further £2.5bn so they can cut class sizes and offer more one-to-one tuition.
This all sounds great for the children. But, from a purely selfish perspective, I’m left unclear as to whether funding will still be available to invest in the built environment to fuel regrowth in an industry so desperately in need of investment. The past five years have seen unprecedented levels of capital investment in the education sector. The Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme has resulted in a large number of new state-of-the-art schools being built across the country, two of which have kept me exceptionally busy for the past three years. Not only is this good for me and my firm, but I truly believe that this investment in the buildings themselves will have as dramatic an effect on the students as an inspiring teacher.
I truly believe that investment in the buildings themselves will have as dramatic an effect on the students as an inspiring teacher
It is all too apparent that the next five years are going to be very different from the previous five in terms of government spending. Whichever party (if any) forms a government on 7 May, it will be operating in an almost unrecognisable landscape from the one that existed when Labour announced its flagship BSF programme in 2004. The scale of the UK’s deficit this year could mount to above £180bn. Massive cuts in public expenditure are required and it appears that the education sector will not be immune from these cuts. Indeed, the Institute of Fiscal Studies indicated last year that capital expenditure would need to be chopped by half over the next few years. The institute believed that the BSF programme would bear the brunt of these cuts.
So, it seems that the number of new and innovative, purpose-built schools will be severely limited in the coming years. Refurbishments, not new-builds will be the order of day and the emphasis will be on transforming existing buildings into progressive centres of educational excellence. This will require an innovative approach to design and to construction, as existing buildings are remodelled. It will also mean operating within even tighter budgetary constraints and increasing pressure to keep costs as low as possible.
So, while I support the Liberal Democrats’ education policies, it is worth reading them with a pinch of salt. Money will be tight and talk remains cheap. It might not be so easy for Nick (or Gordon or Dave, for that matter) to fulfil all the pledges and promises on education, given the level of the UK deficit. And ultimately the party that secures my vote in this starved and volatile period of employment in the construction industry needs to convince me that there will be continued investment in the built environment.
Sophie Campbell is an architect at Sheppard Robson and a member of Building’s graduate advisory board