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Kids deserve nice schools and good education

Labour’s school building scheme was a poor substitute for raising educational standards, but axing it is a bad idea.

James Heartfield

Topics Politics

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Initiated in 2005 by the then Labour government, the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme aimed to provide new buildings, or upgrade existing ones, for hundreds of schools. But the new Lib-Con government has decided to scrap it.

The programme represented ‘a new approach to capital investment’: the money has been spent on school buildings and information and communications Technology (ICT) in order to further Labour’s educational reform agenda, with a price tag of £5billion to date and projected total costs of £55billion. Given the pensionable state of many of the nation’s schools, the initiative was warmly welcomed by teachers. But this week, Tory education secretary Michael Gove announced that he would axe the scheme, describing it as ‘bureaucratic and wasteful’.

This means that plans for new classrooms and other facilities at over 700 UK schools have now been disrupted. Gove’s announcement has raised fears of a return to classrooms with leaky roofs and broken fixtures.

When BSF was launched, there were real problems with dilapidated school buildings. Some schools, like my alma mater Kingsdale in south-east London – which was one of the first to get refurbished under the BSF programme – are big, 1960s modernist boxes. Others, like my daughters’ school, Hargrave Park in north London, resemble great Bastilles with high ceilings and windows that you have to open with a pole. Hargrave Park School was built following the 1870 education act which promised schooling for all under-11s. It, too, got a facelift thanks to BSF.

But while it’s nice for young people to have access to modern facilities, what the launch of BSF really revealed was a dearth of ideas in how to raise educational ambitions for children. While New Labour boasted about giving schools shiny classrooms and computers, at the same time it denigrated education.

Playing on parents’ concerns for their children’s futures, Tony Blair fought the 1997 election saying his priority was ‘education, education, education’. Once in office, New Labour did not know how to improve standards; the new government just had no means to engage with children’s ambitions. Instead, New Labour politicians launched oxymoronic policies like ‘excellence for all’, while dismissing subject-based, academic learning as ‘elitist’ and ‘irrelevant’. Instead, the government began promoting ‘skills’ instead. What New Labour could do, however – once Gordon Brown abandoned in 1999 the spending limits set by the previous Tory government – was to refurbish schools.

Modernised schools, they said, would not only plug the leaks, they would raise standards, too. As the Department for Education and Employment put it in its 2001 Building Performance report, ‘capital expenditure in schools is strongly linked to pupil attainment’. At the time, the architect Mark Dudek, who specialises in designing school and pre-school environments, went as far as anthropomorphising buildings, writing in his Architecture of Schools that ‘the classroom environment is an essential partner in the task of delivering educational opportunities’.

Yet there is no evidence for the claim that capital investment in schools improves performance. Accountancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) was asked to find out what the additional effect was, in terms of pupil attainment, of every £1 invested in schools capital. The answer was: ‘The relationship was not positive in all cases, nor was it always statistically significant.’ (However, unsurprisingly, there were positive effects on computer skills when new computer suites were introduced.)

It seems the lack of real evidence regarding performance improvement was ignored because PWC, in interviews with headteachers, also found that they believed that ‘capital expenditure in schools is strongly linked to pupil attainment’ (see Building Performance). Policymakers repeatedly quoted the headteachers’ impression as if it was a fact. By refurbishing schools, the government could claim to be meeting their promise of improving education, when in fact they were only giving buildings facelifts.

Like most public spending programmes, BSF wasted money. All kinds of consultants raided the budgets that were supposed to be dedicated to building. At Kingsdale School, the think tank Demos and RED, the Design Council’s ‘do tank’, both claimed a share of the budget for what seemed to me to be pretty pointless consultations. It was a shame, too, that BSF favoured refurbishment over wholesale rebuilding.

The architecture firm De Rijke, Marsh and Morgan, together with construction group Galliford Try, put a beautiful, computer-designed, wooden-framed pod onto one side of the quad at Kingsdale School – the modernist shoebox designed by Sir Lesley Martin. But they could have achieved even more if, like Martin in his day, they had been allowed to build from scratch. Kay Hartmann’s redesign of Hargrave Park’s lobby is very pretty, too, but a new school would have been even better.

Having said all this, axing BSF is a big mistake. Firstly, schools do need good buildings – not as a substitute for good teaching, but to facilitate it. Secondly, today Britain’s construction companies are in danger of being so starved of business that they will never be able to build up the capacity to take on new work.

Along with Labour’s hospital-building programme, BSF was taking up a little of the slack left by the collapse of house building and other major capital projects in Britain. In fact, the reason why Michael Gove could show this week that the construction plans funded through BSF are behind schedule is because the beleaguered construction industry is overwhelmed even by these modest projects.

These are all good reasons for keeping up the schools building programme, but it’s important to keep in mind that none of them will address that other problem: that our schools – and our society – are not appealing to children’s ambitions. It will take more than shiny lobbies and high-tech classrooms to do so.

James Heartfield is a director of the development think-tank Audacity.org. Visit his website here.

Previously on spiked

Frank Furedi explained why you can’t buy and sell intellectual capital. Jennie Bristow interviewed Frank Furedi about his latest book, Wasted. Nathalie Rothschild argued that ‘Free schools’ won’t save British education. Kevin Rooney said we owe children a good education. Michele Ledda felt that children ought be challenged by subjects. Or read more at spiked issue Education.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics

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