With the party conference season in full swing, we just might find out where we stand with the school building programme
Now Gordon Brown has finally admitted the need for cuts to public spending, and the party conference season is upon us, we may well get a hint from the main political parties about whether education building projects will be hit by a reduction in spending.
Children's secretary Ed Balls’ controversial proposals for £2bn of cuts in the sector made no mention of scaling back building projects – but if teachers’ pay is going to be hit, few would expect that construction work in the sector will emerge unscathed.
There are strong arguments for protecting spending in the sector as far as possible. Although it may be tempting to save now by cutting a swath through headline building programmes, the UK will certainly pay later if a generation of school children miss out on the latest classroom technologies and sports facilities because their buildings are too old to incorporate them. But what is certain is that projects will have to fight harder than ever for cash, and if local authorities don’t want to wait five years for that ambitious signature redevelopment, they would do well to start considering whether less flashy refurbishment work would make a sound investment. We’re already starting to see this in the further education college sector.
The Association Of Colleges estimated last week that colleges that had funding pulled by the Learning Skills Council would need to raise £8bn if they wanted to go ahead with their redevelopments, and against the backdrop of that rather worrying picture, the signs are that several are opting for much smaller schemes. One college on the Isle of Wight, for example, is now pressing ahead with a £5m revamp rather than the mega scheme of around £80m it had previously envisaged.
It may not be ideal, but it’s better than nothing. And as Harrow’s impressive sixth form improvement programme shows, £80m can be made to go a lot further than just one new school building – in this case, eight new sixth forms and a school. That’s maths others should learn from.