Speaking before his recent reshuffle to the Department for Work and Pensions, Sarah Richardson spoke to the then schools minister Jim Knight about exactly why Building Schools for the Future is safe

It’s difficult to believe as he sits in his sparsely furnished Whitehall office, but had life turned out differently, Jim Knight might at this moment have been pacing around a US film studio waiting for Al Pacino to call him back.

The diminutive, softly spoken schools minister does not look like the dramatic type, but it seems that appearances can be deceptive: he once ran a travelling theatre company with Sam Mendes, the Oscar-winning director, doing everything from the acting to the accounts.

If Knight, who set up his venture with Mendes during their last year at Cambridge, has regrets about their differing career choices, he doesn’t show it. The pair worked together for several years after leaving university, along with Knight’s future wife. Eventually it failed because, Knight says, “we chose to do only new writing. So nobody had heard of anything we did”.

The 43 year old made his exit from the stage and entrance into politics in the nineties, and he doesn’t miss that life. “One mad year we went to the Edinburgh festival where I managed the venue, supervised the building of the auditorium out of scaffolding and performed in three plays. It was lunacy. It took me many years to go back to Edinburgh after that.”

The ability to balance competing pressures has, however, remained with him. As so often happens with ministers, our half-hour interview slot has been cut to 15 owing to his diary pressures. As we talk rapidly, Knight glances down twice to open messages on his phone, without ever missing a beat in the conversation.

It’s a good skill to have. As schools minister, Knight is responsible for fulfilling the government’s £45bn pledge to rebuild or refurbish every secondary school in the country by 2020 – not to mention a host of other proposed building programmes in the education sector. This always looked like an immense task, but now the country is up to its eyebrows in £1.2 trillion of debt it looks a tad unrealistic. Does Knight really believe school building programmes can survive the recession unscathed?

As he leans back in his chair, beneath a school pupil’s brightly coloured painting of the department for children’s rainbow logo, Knight is quick to acknowledge that the situation has recently not been too rosy, particularly for the £45bn Building Schools for the Future (BSF) initiative, which has been hit by the tightening of bank lending. It is understood that financial close is being reached on BSF schemes two to three months later than originally anticipated.

“Like any programme with private finance involved, BSF has had challenges which [delivery body] Partnerships for Schools (PfS) in particular have had to work through, with me saying you’ve got to keep opening schools and can’t slow down the trajectory,” he says.

He adds that he is happy with the delivery body’s progress in stemming the problems, that have led to £300m in emergency funding from the European Investment Bank, and moves to entice lenders back into the market.

“They’ve managed those challenges really well. In summer 2007 there were 20 lenders, and obviously we then had some falling out of involvement. But they’ve now picked back up to 20 again. So that crucial side of it, in terms of getting the finance through, has reverted back to a steady state that we’re really comfortable with.”

And Knight is confident that the flow of money will be maintained. “The banks are starting to want to get back to doing their job,” he says, with a small laugh. “They’ve got an attitude to risk that is very cautious, but I think they find in BSF a low-risk proposition.”

The government itself has accelerated £800m of funding on schools as part of its spending stimulus, but none of that has gone to BSF. Knight defends this decision: “In terms of stimulating the industry we looked quite hard at whether we could accelerate BSF, and we made a judgment that we would compromise the quality of what we’re doing too much if we did.”

He says instead that the speed of BSF delivery will be helped by other measures such as a minimum design standard, launched last month, which should help streamline the procurement process. “With the smaller projects that we’ve brought forward money for, we can get them out of the door faster.” He says the decision was based on what was best able to help the industry for the overall good of both types of project.

“It’s important that alongside the banking side we’ve got an industry that’s in sufficiently good shape to be able to do the work for us and that we didn’t have a collapse in skills and so on. I feel we’re in a reasonable place despite very difficult times for the industry.”

That may be the case for now, but the government’s debt and the implication for public spending is difficult to ignore. With the interview time ticking on, Knight is keen to stress the government’s commitment to education spending, and to BSF in particular: “We have maintained that we are committed to continuing BSF. That’s a commitment that’s been repeated not just by me and the secretary of state [Ed Balls], but by the prime minister. So our political commitment is as strong as it’s ever been.”

That said, he does acknowledge that the programme will come under increased pressure. “Public spending will be tight, and although a lot of that will be on the revenue side it’s not going to be perhaps as straightforward as it has been on the capital side of things.”

What this means for the scope and timing of the programmes is unclear. Knight concedes that by 2020, the original target for BSF, “we might not have completed the work on every single secondary school, but we will at least have started it”.

He is hesitant over whether the pressures on spending could mean more refurbishments rather than renewals. “It can be cheaper to do, yes, but sometimes it’s not that straightforward. Obviously we continue to look at it and we continue to ensure we’re getting best value for money.”

He also hints that there may be some changes in the programme for the next wave of schools to enter. “There’s more we’ll say about the next Comprehensive Spending Review period, I’d hope, later on in the year, in terms of those authorities that are not yet involved in BSF. Those detailed discussions with the Treasury go on. But the government as a whole remains steadfastly committed to BSF,” he adds quickly, keen to hammer home that message.

Knight does seem genuinely committed to the programme. But when the subject of his own former school comes up, it’s clear he is not getting carried away with the need to modernise for the sake of it, a criticism that has been levelled at the Learning and Skills Council’s (LSC) £5bn college building programme, which was widely viewed as over-ambitious and came a spectacular cropper earlier this year.

Knight spent his own youth in a school in Eltham, south-east London. As it is private, it is outside the scope of government-funded improvements. When he returned there earlier this year he found it much as he had left it.

“I was amazed to go back and go into the same science lab where I was taught chemistry and see the same person who taught me teaching a local science club. It was great actually. There have been some capital developments, but it’s still very similar. It’s not about change for change’s sake – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

But he quickly adds that there are many schools where this consideration does not apply. “There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that the investment we’re making is transforming education. For pupils to be able to move around between lessons in corridors that are not cramped and with peeling paint – it’s really important.”

Despite his praise for BSF, however, Knight says there are no immediate plans for PfS to take charge of the LSC’s college building programme. The programme comes largely under the remit of the Department for Innovations, Universities and Skills (DIUS), but also includes some sixth-form provision that is funded by the children’s department. “I haven’t had those discussions with DIUS. At the moment the work with PfS about extending its reach has been more about other capital projects within this department”.

There has been some concern that the expenses furore might weaken MPs’ concentration on the issues at hand – a point that Knight is well aware of. “It’s been a bit of a story,” he laughs nervously.

Knight himself has published details of his own on his website – and despite a £399 claim for a combined television, DVD and computer monitor (more evidence of that multitasking, perhaps) – everything seems in order. But he’s acutely aware of the atmosphere in Westminster.

“Clearly all MPs are concerned about it and want to get it sorted out quickly, and it’s the dominant issue politically right now. But for us in government,” he adds, hurtling off again, “We’re still getting on with it. I’ve had a series of meetings about all manner of things this morning. I’ve met groups and discussed the Black Country challenge (a “festival of learning” in the Coventry area) and parental engagement in a child’s education. I’ve been to a cross-governmental meeting to discuss the swine flu outbreak, and I’ve done an interview with yourself – and it’s only 12.30.”

As if on cue, at the mention of the time a stern looking female aide appears to tell Knight in no uncertain terms that people are waiting for him downstairs. “What’s my next meeting?” he asks, momentarily wrong-footed. But then his calm manner returns. “I’ll be down shortly.” “It’s fine,” he adds as she lingers pointedly. “Really.”

Much to her obvious ire, he spares a couple more minutes for photos, and also, bewilderingly, to send a tweet telling the world that he’s just been photographed for the magazine. It’s well buried beneath the serious, measured exterior, but maybe there’s just the faintest touch of the drama luvvie about him after all.

Jim Knight’s school days

Most hated subject

Maths. It can be a very enjoyable subject, taught well, but taught badly it can sort of kill you off.

Best teacher

A guy called Andy Dixon, a geography teacher. Through the subject he instilled a real understanding of the world in which we live and how people interact with their environment, and that’s stood me in good stead in the world of politics.

Worst part of school building

In the music room they had those chairs that have got a little extension to the arm where you’re meant to write on. But I’m left handed, and there weren’t enough left-handed chairs. We were an oppressed minority.