With the new coalition government barely a month old, Michael Gove bashing has become one of the most popular pastimes among architects across the country. The new education secretary has enraged the architectural intelligentsia by suggesting that the former Labour government’s heralded BSF scheme is “wasteful and inefficient” and that “money doesn’t go to the schools – it goes to bureaucrats, architects and construction companies.”
Predictably, the reaction from several members of the construction and architectural industries has been visceral and defensive. Several architects wrote personally to the Conservative Party to complain, the RIBA, (an institution rarely stirred into action) accused the Right Honourable Gentleman of “purporting a myth” and he has been mercilessly pilloried and lampooned by bloggers throughout cyberspace.
Tony Blair’s infamous “education, education, education” mantra may seem a long way off now but if we are to look for concrete evidence of how it has transpired, then the BSF programme is the closest we are going to get. The UK’s biggest ever schools investment scheme has done a commendable and worthy job of improving or rebuilding much of the country’s schools building stock, much of which was – and remains – sub-standard. And yes, at its core BSF was theoretically inspired by a progressive social altruism that sought to realise academic quality through design excellence.
But it would be disingenuous and remiss to ignore the fact that many have profited – handsomely – from BSF. Or that the comprehensive design quality it promised has not always been delivered. Or even, perhaps most damagingly, that it has not led to the concurrent rise in national education standards that surely should be the ultimate aim of any government’s education policy.
Yes many architects may well have lost out after engaging with BSF’s tortuously complex procurement process. But from the way many within the industry gush about its almost sacred social status, you’d almost think they’d waived their fees.
Architects undoubtedly have a crucial role to play in improving the fabric of schools across the country. But perhaps the greatest failing of BSF is that it obscures the fundamental reality that it is parents, teachers and communities that create successful schools and not just buildings.