The James Review into schools procurement, published earlier this month, called for an as yet unnamed central body to oversee schools delivery, with responsibility for running national frameworks, advising local authorities on projects, and managing all major schemes. If many of those responsibilities sound familiar, it’s no surprise.
During the nine months the government has spent attacking the bureaucracy and “waste” of Building Schools for the Future (BSF), its crack team of advisors has been working behind the scenes to come up with the innovative solution to have the school building programme run by a body which is essentially a souped up version of existing delivery agency Partnerships for Schools.
The James review stopped short of saying that this central body would be, or be formed from, Partnerships for Schools. Cynics would argue that it would have found it incredibly difficult to go this far – with the government so vehement in its attacks on BSF, it would seem at odds for a complete vote of confidence to Schbe given to the agency that was managing the programme.
But as the government deliberates on its responses to the James review, it seems pretty obvious that PFS should form the backbone of any new central delivery body. As the education department found out when it quietly called upon the organisation to assist with the delivery of its free school programme last year, the body has built up an extremely valuable level of practical expertise that isn’t replicated in any one individual consultancy, or indeed in the Department for Education itself.
The government may have sought to whip up anger against the running of BSF, but there is a clear difference between attacking the way the system was set up under Labour and attacking the way that government’s wishes were implemented by PFS.
This was not a Learning and Skills Council-esque tale of quango incompetence and overspend. PFS delivered set amounts of government money as directed by government, with all the infuriatingly slow processes that entailed.
In the early days of the new governments attacks on school building, that distinction wasn’t made clearly enough, if at all. But it has noticeably softened its approach towards PFS in recent months – and hopefully this will culminate in a sensible decision not to lose the expertise built up by the body.
It’s telling that in all the industry responses received to the James Review, not one construction company has criticised the idea of a central body. And not one, not even those who in the past have been the most frustrated at delays – has cautioned against using PFS.