Thursday 8 July 2010

Getting the lists wrong was not Gove's biggest error

There is plenty of justifiable outrage at the cack-handed way in which the lists of spared and scrapped school building projects were issued this week. For those schools that thought their plans would be realised, the agony of being told that this was merely an administrative error must have been unbearable, and Michael Gove is right to don sackcloth and apologise in person.

But it would be wrong to view listgate as the most important mistake in this sorry business. That lay in cancelling 719 existing Building Schools for the Future projects in the first place, many of them well advanced - meaning that whatever admin costs were regarded as profligate will already have been accrued. BSF may have become too bureaucratic, but behind it lay a desire to achieve rather more than new buildings for a £55 billion investment. A transformation was being sought across whole towns, cities and shires, not just in individual schools. There were expectations that new schools would have the latest technology, that classrooms would be adaptable to modern needs, that the schools would approach carbon neutrality and that by improving the learning environment, they could contribute to higher standards. Many BSF plans were explicitly linked to the establishment of academies.

Of course, a new government might be expected to seek better value for money from the whole process. It may even have new priorities for what they should contain (though it should eschew building new schools on a Victorian model) and it may see potential value for money improvements in more standardised plans. All this could be achieved through a halt to future building plans, without throwing existing plans out, particularly those that were well advanced.

Maybe, Gove is seeking to win Brownie points from the Treasury. Maybe he thinks he can't fund free schools without cancelling existing plans. Either way he must surely have realised how much political damage this would do to the coalition. Tory MPs are as angry as Labour ones, with one planning a march on No 10. And given that many plans are funded through the Private Finance Initiative, was it really necessary? Unlike his cabinet colleague at health (latest wheeze: having trashed Jamie's school dinners, let's get McDonald's to run our health campaigns) Gove has had a clear rationale to his reforms, whether one accepted it or not. By creating so many enemies so early, he has made it that much harder to achieve his radical ambitions.

Meanwhile, is it worth asking where the Lib Dems were in all this process? Probably not, as their DFE minister, Sarah Teather's apparent ignorance of what has happened in education over the last ten years is matched only by her obvious inability to influence a single decision of any real importance in her department.


Tim said...

There's a lack of clarity about what happens to the money saved. Our local Tory MP has tried to suggest that this means capital will be available for schools without going through the BSF - but press reports have implied that this is being taken as savings.

One thing that's certain, of course, is that the money which has already been spent on planning in many authorities is now wasted.

Glen said...

At least this was a rather predictable and minister-led cut, unlike the scrapping of the £3-billion Sixth Form College building programme by the previous government, which seems to have happened by accident.

Zokko said...

Excuse me, but weren't the Tories supposed to mend 'Broken Britain'? It looks worse than ever after only two months.