It was difficult to know what kind of atmosphere to expect at this year’s BSEC. On the one hand, schools have been the construction industry’s saviour over the past year, in the face of meltdown in just about every other sector. But on the other, the likelihood of a change of government and unspecified cuts in spending in a few months’ time means that the market is the least certain it’s been in about a decade, and construction firms could be forgiven for turning their attention elsewhere.
That they haven’t was in ample evidence at the conference, which had 10% more visitors than the previous year. Interestingly, a large contingent of these seemed to be from the north – proving, perhaps, that the move to a larger venue in London hasn’t dampened enthusiasm from that part of the country. Either that, or if you’ve been braving snow and ice in Cumbria for the last four months, a trip to the Excel centre has more in common with a holiday than simply its aircraft hangar-like appearance.
The real buzz amongst the delegates was for networking: with a 15-month lead in on many schools projects, the view seemed to be that regardless of who gets into power, for the next year at least there are plenty of deals there for the taking. I had slightly more freedom to observe these conversations than usual owing to the dubious pleasure of being presented with a maintenance badge rather than a press pass, which meant people didn’t silence their talk quite as quickly as they usually do when I approached. “I’ve been walking the aisles in rotation for two hours,” admitted one delegate, after I’d owned up to the fact I couldn’t fix a plug if you paid me. “We’re hoping to get a decent amount of work just out of this morning.”
The looming spectre of an election, if anything, seemed to have galvanised delegates to prove that the UK’s school building industry really does have something to offer education. Building’s Charter 284 campaign went down well with the audience (for all those who requested an explanation of the figures, and were not fobbed off with a cheery wave and a copy of the magazine, do get in touch now I have a calculator in front of me.)
And, perhaps more importantly, the industry demonstrated it still has a huge willingness to learn, and to adapt its work to suit both straitened times and evolving educational practice. Nowhere was this better proven than by the huge interest in the Danish Embassy’s stand, which pulled together wonderful examples of innovative school design and refurbishment from Denmark. And if anyone suggests any part of that interest was due to a neighbouring stand giving out free ice cream, well, I just don’t buy it.