Monday, July 5, 2010

Un-Building Schools For The Future

It's difficult to know what to say about BSF, New Labour's schools building programme given the boot by the Tory/Lib coalition today. Sure it was imperfect in lots of ways - huge amounts of money wasted in lengthy procurement bids, dis-empowered schools removed from the decision making process and generally pretty poor architecture most prominent amongst them - least schools were being built. Mostly pretty horrible ones clad in Trespa it's true, but schools nonetheless.

A review body headed by Sebastian James, Group Operations Director of DSG (Dixon Stores Group) International and which also includes Kevin Grace, the Director of Tesco Property Services, has been set up today to re-look at how to finance school building instead. This is depressingly emblematic of the way that a venal and empty commercialism has taken over every area of life to such an extent that its impossible to imagine a government doing something as simple and progressive as building a new school. No, it has to be reviewed in advance by the Group Operations Director of Dixons.

The trashing of BSF, together with the government's sinister Big Society smokescreen of privately run schools, means that hundreds of secondary schools will now continue to deteriorate well beyond their intended original lifespan. BSF was, effectively, a Tory policy in disguise, a spin-off of PFI developed by New Labour. It allowed new schools to be built without raising taxes, or have the money appear on government balance sheets. The process was riddled with typically New Labourish complexity too, and swamped by a risk averse culture that ultimately favours no one but the banks that lend the money to get the schools built or the consortium that construct and lease them. The Tories attack on BSF is, then, entirely opportunistic, another ideological attempt to further shrink state spending way beyond anything required to reduce the current budget deficit.

Of course, it would be much better if the government funded a school building programme more directly than BSF through progressive taxation, with schools acting as genuine clients, rather than as marginalised end-users in some over-beurocratised commercial process. But that's certainly not going to happen under this administration. Sebastian James' statement that "we can build a schools infrastructure that is truly world class while significantly reducing spending" is pure bollocks, a hollow and cynical piece of phrasing with no conviction behind it. Talk of a "more measured investment backdrop" is also nonsense, especially when the whole problem with BSF was that the budgets for the schools were already appallingly low.

I should declare an interest here, of course, which is that my practice is currently commissioned to design a BSF school. From the looks of things it seems it might survive the axe. But, apart from the fact that without it we would probably be on the floor rather than just about surviving, I still think BSF was an attempt to do something half-way decent within a hideously circumscribed political culture. That New Labout didn't have the conviction to shift that culture is undoubtedly a massively missed opportunity. The fact that we've now moved to the right of New Labour - and it's now the Tories doing the slashing - doesn't necessarily make BSF a good thing. It's just that the alternative is far worse.

1 comment:

Markasaurus said...

With the Tories' recent mention of a desire to allow new schools to open in existing buildings, I can't help but think that appointing Tesco's Director of Property Services as an advisor is a bit ominous.