Michael Gove, let’s be honest, has had better weeks. On Monday, in a rip-roaring speech to the Commons, he announced that he was shelving Labour’s £55bn Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme. Around 700 new school projects are far enough advanced to escape the axe — but 715 more found out they’d no longer be getting the shiny new buildings they thought they would.
To make matters worse, it turned out that the government was a little hazy about exactly which schools were which. Gove made a grovelling apology, but it hasn’t made a dent, and now a formidable coalition of Ed Balls and the teaching unions are planning to protest the cuts in parliament with a “Save Our Schools” rally. Even the odd Tory MP might join them.
The odd thing about all this is that Gove hasn’t actually spiked plans to rebuild all those schools at all.
A lot of the cancelled projects, admittedly, aren’t now going to happen. Those that do will have to wait for the outcome of another review, and are likely to be a less ambitious than anyone had hoped.
But Gove’s team recognises that there are still a lot of dilapidated schools out there (not all of them in BSF, they point out). They also know we’re going to need a lot more primary-school places in the near future. The government still has every intention of building plenty of schools. It just wants to find ways of spending less money doing it.
If you don’t believe me, look at the figures. The amount saved by scrapping those named BSF projects should be somewhere around £7bn. The total cuts in capital spending unveiled alongside Monday’s speech were £169m. If they really weren’t planning on building any more schools, the deficit hawks should be shouting that first figure from the rooftops.
So, if it isn’t quite the disaster it’s been reported as, why isn’t Gove saying so? Partly it’s a reluctance to get anyone’s hopes up (many of those schools, after all, really aren’t going to happen). Partly, too, it’s because it’s not yet clear how much money will be left in the pot once the Treasury has had its say.
Some in the school sector are even speculating that it’s a political move, to make Gove look tough now and bountiful later.
But the truth, I suspect, is more prosaic. Gove simply misjudged the gleeful tone of his speech. He spent too much time attacking BSF’s failings, and not enough explaining his own government’s plans. Worst of all, he forgot that there’s no sexier headline than, “Tories cancel children’s futures.”
Jonn Elledge is a journalist covering politics and the public sector. He is currently editor of EducationInvestor magazine.