Education Apr 9 2011

James Review on School Buildings makes some good points but leaves unanswered questions

The James Review in to capital spending on schools was slipped out to very little fanfare yesterday, on the last day of term. I wonder why? It could be that the whole matter of school buildings is of little real interest to the media, but given the furore over the cancellation of BSF, you would have thought there would be more interest in what might follow it. Alternatively, maybe the government didn’t want to attract too much attention to the Review’s findings.

I had a strong sense of déjà vu, reading it. As a chair of governors, I spent almost three years, with colleagues from other local schools wrestling with the byzantine bureaucracy put in place by the last Labour government to deliver BSF, only to have the money we were anticipating snatched from us at the 11th hour in July last year..

I would agree with some of James’ findings ; the previous system was overly bureaucratic, involved too many consultants, took too long and was made irredeemably frustrating , by the antics of the wholly misnamed delivery body Partnership for Schools. Partnership was in short supply in our relationship with this organisation, as this blog in today’s Telegraph by Neil O Brien, Director of the Policy Exchange, flags up.

PfS main aim at every turn seemed to be to generate more work for itself, for its satellite consultancies, to empire build, to bully and patronise school governing bodies and local authorities. It is a mystery to me why this organisation is still involved in school capital procurement at all and, reading between the lines, looks set to be reinvented under a new name to manage the lions’ share of the next tranche of large scale procurement centrally on behalf of the government. Surely only a matter of time before what O Brien describes as PfS ‘mission creep’ rears its ugly head again.

PFS aside, James reads as if the authors were trying to do an impartial piece of work, with their hands tied by certain political constraints, not least Michael Gove’s insistence, reported in last week’s FT, that the report should be used to trash BSF and Labour’s record to retrospectively justify what must still be the biggest own goal of his reign at the DFE.

However in spite of the disproportionately large amount of space given to analysing BSF, not all the Review’s criticisms were well justified. In one astonishing paragraph, the authors profess to being ‘troubled ‘ by the amount of involvement staff and pupils had been allowed to think about what their new schools might be like .This is quite extraordinary given all the rhetoric we hear about localism, the Big Society and community involvement. Expect to see these decisions taken centrally from now on.

The idea of using buildings to effect educational transformation’ is also sneered at because it didn’t deliver a quick boost in exams results. But education is about more than just test and exam results. Many heads and pupils in post BSF buildings report an increased sense of self esteem in pupils, especially those from poor backgrounds and overcrowded homes, as they moved into purpose built modern buildings that became highly regarded and sought after by the local community. Even though the educational transformation process inevitably descended into yet another round of PfS box ticking exercises, it did force schools to think about what and how, they might want to teach in the future, and that was no bad thing either.

What we are left with post James will be very different; government will call the shots for big projects, there will be some locally devolved capital to schools and local authorities, but much less than was previously available and to be distributed via a ‘local investment plan’. A better estimate of local condition need will be required, schools will have to become smarter about their maintenance programmes and there will need to be consultation locally about how the pot is divvied up. The Review notes that this will lead to ‘tensions’ between different institutions.

And there will be a two tier school estate. On one hand the 800 or so BSF new builds, gleaming new bespoke designs kitted out with state of the art ICT and the rest , built or refurbished under new slimmed down planning rules to a simplified and standardised design package. Think flat pack schools – I suppose we should expect nothing less from a Review group populated heavily by people who work in the commercial retail sector (Tesco, Dixons, Mothercare and WH Smith) putting up clone shops around the country.

Finally there will of course be a special category for creating ‘oversupply’ in ‘demand led’ schools (free schools to you and me) Money for these will be held centrally and handed out at the government’s discretion. It is unclear what how much of the total  DFE capital building budget will be devoted to this, or indeed how the decisions to spend it will be taken, but these really are the million dollar questions. A desire not to be probed on the answers may be one reason why yesterday’s publication was so muted.

This blog has also been posted on the Local Schools Network

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