Alistair Campbell in his prime would have struggled to put a positive spin on the progress of the government’s flagship school building programme.
By now, the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) initiative should have been well on the way to producing its first 100 secondary schools. Instead, the number can be counted on two hands. Not surprisingly, Gordon Brown’s conference speech included much about what goes on inside classrooms and nothing about the state they’re in.
So, with the programme running two years behind schedule, the latest review of it, announced last week, is welcome. The industry must hope that the Pricewaterhouse Coopers team taking stock of the programme will recognise the obvious fact that the procurement process is extraordinarily cumbersome and wasteful. For example, three shortlisted bidders each have to produce detailed designs for three schools, two of which will lose a great deal of money. Given that the industry already has more work than it can handle, contractors may very well conclude that there are easier ways of making a living.
But what’s also becoming more apparent about BSF is that funding is failing to keep pace with aspiration. The government wants schools to be fuelled by biomass boilers and wind turbines. It wants to replace traditional classrooms with open plan designs in which staff act more like coaches than chalk-and-talk teachers. Yet the budgets – and, to be fair, the thinking from local education partnerships – are more aligned to simply replacing old for new. And that’s without the issue of soaring construction costs.
As we’ve said many times, the government should be lauded for its ambition, which is to create the infrastructure for one of the finest educational systems in the world. The industry can’t expect a blank cheque book – but a realistic appraisal of funding needs shouldn’t be out of the question. It may be that we simply can’t afford to revamp all 3,500 schools by 2019 – but so what, if the end results are better? The problem facing the government is that admitting that won’t look good – especially with a general election on the horizon.
Brown’s announcement that he wants to double the number of eco-towns is bold (page 10), but if they are to be successful, the government will need to develop a number of policies around them. It needs radical thinking on public transport and investment in infrastructure. It needs steely political nerves to withstand the backlash that will come over the building of some towns on greenfield sites. It needs investment in R&D to improve green technologies. Lastly, it needs to tackle the most important question of all: if local renewable energy is to succeed, legislation is needed to prevent consumers opting to buy from suppliers peddling cheaper energy from coal or gas-fired power stations.
Denise Chevin, editor