One of the more remarkable things about this government is its unerring ability to get no credit when it does something progressive. It launched the largest public building programmes in decades, but was slammed for using PFI. It’s invested billions in health and increased the number of doctors being trained, but finds itself loathed for wrecking the NHS and dooming junior doctors to unemployment.
Building Schools for the Future (BSF), a £45bn programme to rebuild or renovate every secondary school in England, is a case in point. Since it was launched in 2004 it’s been largely ignored, to the extent that many people don’t even know it’s happening. When it did hit the headlines in January it was for the wrong reasons, as the newly public spirited Tory party slammed the programme for failing to deliver.
This lack of attention is odd because, if all goes to plan, BSF should be one of the Blair government’s biggest legacies. There are more than 3,500 secondary schools in England. Ofsted reckons that two-thirds of these are decrepit enough to be damaging to children’s education: dingy, poorly heated Victorian blocks, or post-war monstrosities with leak-prone roofs. By 2020, the government claims, BSF should have swept these schools away and replaced them with bright new buildings fit for the 21st century.
Nor is it just about bricks and mortar: BSF, we’re told, is “transformational”. IT will become an integral part of school life; new schools will become community centres and encourage regeneration. Even bullies will be tackled, by denying them darkened corners in which to terrorize their victims. As Tim Byles, the chief executive of the agency delivering the programme, Partnerships for Schools, recently told a conference: “We have been given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make a real difference.”
All this sounds like exactly the kind of stuff that a modern progressive government should be doing. So why hasn’t it been more of a PR coup for a beleaguered Labour party?
For one thing, there’s been a certain amount of political backlash. Every council is producing a long-term plan to determine what schools it needs and where to put them; that can mean closing old schools as well as opening new ones. This has sometimes led to painful headlines, like when the Manchester Evening News noticed that Salford council’s glossy schools prospectus was jam packed with images of one of the secondaries facing the axe.
Also, as the Tories have rather gleefully noted, the programme is rather nastily behind schedule. The government now reckons that, of 100 new schools originally planned to open this year, just 14 will be finished by April 2008.
The delays are largely down to the hellish complexity of the average scheme. Local councils are expected to team up with private companies in a 10-year Local Education Partnership (LEP). Individual schools will then be funded through PFI, the scheme under which private companies finance and manage schools under 30-year contracts.
But a vocal minority of councils have refused to follow this route, complaining that it is too slow, too expensive, and gives private companies too big a role in education planning. A lot of construction firms hate the LEP idea too, complaining that the only ones to benefit from the mounds of new paperwork will be the lawyers. “What do we know about education?” one chief executive said recently. “All we want to do is build schools.”
Despite these problems, there have been signs of progress. After a slow start the deals have started to sign, and the first new BSF school, Speedwell College in Bristol, is due to move into its new buildings this September. What’s more, council officers and contractors alike still evangelize about the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity BSF represents.
But this may turn out to be the biggest problem of all: that the programme can’t possibly live up to the huge expectations of it. “The government doesn’t just say it’s fixing up the schools, it says it’ll make every school better and results will go up,” says Elaine Hall, an educationalist at Newcastle University. “But we’re in ‘all children are above average’ territory here.” The fear is that efforts to sell the programme as ‘transformational’ mean it could disappoint, however good those new buildings are. “Already people say it’s not delivering,” notes Hall.
BSF has the potential to be one of this government’s greatest legacies. But the way it’s going at the moment, it could be forgiven for being quietly glad it’s going unnoticed.
Jonn Elledge is assistant editor of Public Private Finance, a magazine that covers the private sector’s role in public infrastructure. A recovering financial journalist, he also contributes to the Sharpener group blog