The government is way off target on its schools building programme. So what, precisely, would the Tories do if they were in charge? Michael Gove takes aim
It doesn’t matter whether you’re a classicist, a modernist or a great clunking fist, there’s one thing that everyone involved in building recognises is vital – precision. Submitting building proposals in which you say that one measurement will be somewhere around the six-footish area and the other should be a few yards, give or take, is not the way to get past the planning committee.
But, funnily enough, when the government lays out its plans, precision is often the last thing it achieves. Sure, ministers aim for exactness. Like when they announced that by the end of 2008 there would be 200 new schools completed under their Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme. Sounds wonderfully specific. And exciting, too. But the reality is we’re just two months away from the end of 2008 and the number of schools either rebuilt or refurbished under BSF is fewer than 40. The number of proper new-builds is fewer than 20. Choosing a target and then getting things less than 10% right isn’t precision – it’s pathetic.
And the pattern of delay that has marked the progress of BSF so far is worse even than these figures reveal. Seventy-six per cent of the first wave of BSF projects are experiencing delays. None of the second or third wave of projects were due to be completed until September 2010. However, already 70% of the second wave programmes and five of the 12 third wave programmes are facing delays.
We’re not interested in cutting the school building budget. By a single penny. We simply want to see the funds committed used more effectively.
Local authorities have to jump through significant process hoops before they even get anywhere near thinking about the actual buildings. The work required is often expensive, and consultant-heavy, with money that could be spent on bricks and mortar going on strategists and seminars.
The government tells us that they’ve learned lessons from what’s gone wrong and Tim Byles, the man in charge of the quango now driving forward BSF, is a committed and intelligent guy who wants to make progress. I’ve met Tim informally and liked his style but even the best individuals can become frustrated by bureaucratic behemoths, so I’m looking forward to a fuller, more formal, chat with him to see how we can speed up delivery.
I think it’s only fair people ask the opposition precisely what we would do. We would keep every penny in the BSF budget committed to improving the school estate. We’re not interested in cutting education spending, nor in cutting the school building budget. By a single penny. We simply want to see the funds committed used more effectively, and efficiently.
Sure, ministers aim for exactness. But Choosing a target and then getting things less than 10% right isn’t precision – it’s pathetic.
I’m not ideological about how we achieve greater efficiency, whether it’s through local government, new actors coming into the state sector, innovation from the construction industry or new approaches to collaboration. What matters to me is getting more schools in place as quickly as possible. That’s why I want to work with Tim and his team at Partnerships for Schools to identify why we’ve had the delays we’ve had, what the blockages in the pipeline are and how we can get things moving. Given the problems elsewhere in the construction industry, the skilled labour lying idle, the capacity unused, it seems to me logical to speed things up.
We’ve been looking abroad to learn lessons about how to improve schools. We’ve been attracted by what we saw in Sweden. In the past 15 years, more than 900 schools have opened, as a result of a reforming government allowing new organisations to enter the state sector to complement local authorities. They’ve had an academy-style programme, but with schools opening up where the providers recognise there’s a demand rather than where central government dictates they should go.
We’ve argued that some of the currently uncommitted BSF money should be available to help set up schools in areas of low educational attainment and high disadvantage. But it’s important to be clear here – precise, even. We’re talking about money committed to building schools being spent on school building. It’s not a cut.
In Sweden they succeeded in building these 900 schools without any state money going to fund capital investment – the school premises were paid for by transferring revenue costs to new suppliers. So what we propose could actually be more attractive to new suppliers than the Swedish system. The top aim, however, is not to make building schools more attractive to new suppliers but to make new school buildings more attractive to parents and children. And I hope we can achieve that aim by sticking, precisely, to the current spending totals.
Michael Gove is shadow secretary for children, schools and families