Thursday, 4 March 2010

The future of BSF under a Conservative administration?

Whilst recent weeks have seen plenty of speculation on the future of the world's largest school rebuilding programme in the event of a Conservative government, facts have been rather harder to come by.

Nick Gibb (shadow schools' minister) has come closest to letting the cat out of the bag during a couple of relatively low-key events, but the people who actually know the answer (Dave C and Mike G) are keeping their cards closer to their more experienced chests. Bob Harrison's coverage on Merlin John's website of Gibb's statements can be read here and here.

Personally, however, I'm not convinced the Tories will dismantle BSF, for a number of reasons;

  • Firstly, Gibb's statements have the ring of politicking about them - sabre-rattling without actually making any commitments or stating a policy position. I mean, the guy has got to say something, and "our policies are essentially the same as Labour's" doesn't sound that impressive, however accurate. Someone who really ought to know the truth recently told me that Gibb may have been 'off message' on this one. Indeed, one of his statements last week reveals a lot about his role in the decision making process; "I'm not shadow chancellor, and shadow ministers are told on pain of death not to make spending promises".
  • I'm not the shadow chancellor either, but I do know that one of the things even inexperienced administrations don't do in tough economic times is cut spending on public works as it only makes things worse, with unemployment jumping as (in this case) thousands of builders find themselves out of work. Ally this to the somewhat cynical view that the big building companies and core Tory support have, er, aligned interests, and a dramatic slash and burn policy seems even remoter.
  • Michael Gove has been quite clear on some of the targets of his axe - the National Programme for IT in the NHS and quangos such as Becta for example, but no mention has been made of BSF. If the programme was actually on the blacklist, I would have expected far more political capital to have been made from its high-profile 'failures' over recent months. 
What seems much more likely is a reshaping of the programme along Conservative lines. In my opinion, BSF under the Tories might look like this;

  • Sped up - a money saving tactic, which carries the risk of inappropriate/ broken outcomes. In my experience, unfortunately, it's the lack of time which detracts from projects' success even under the current time scales.
  • Slimmed down - in order to achieve the time savings above. The obvious way of doing this is to shorten the procurement process, and one route might be to remove choice and variety - school designs could be standardised and the 'architectural vanity projects' which seem to be the real focus of much of BSF would disappear. Expect many more refurbs and reuse of commercial properties, with far, far fewer new buildings.
  • Regionally delivered - this fits closely with a Conservative philosophy which militates against big government and as Nick Gibb said, the centrally planned nature of the programme "works against the direction we want to go in". PfS don't seem unduly worried right now, so perhaps a reshaped administration is possible?
  • Less emphasis on transformation - the very word implies that something is wrong with the way things are done, which isn't necessarily how Cameron et al see it. The emphasis may well be on, in their own phrase, 'benefits realisation' which roughly translates as 'better not different'. This is obviously worrying to anyone who actually knows anything about education in this country. The Conservative view has historically been backwards looking, which leads me to the final change...
  • Minus the 10% ICT investment - many commentators in the Twitterverse and Blogosphere have noted that the Conservatives don't 'get' the need for education to use technology, much less the fundamental change implied by putting students in control of their learning through ICT. It's a quick win, an easy way to speed up and slim down the process (removing the need for consortia of builders and ICT suppliers) and much less likely to result in lower tax receipts due to unemployment. It's also the only change which would pose a genuine threat to this country's long term economic security. Worryingly short sighted.
These are just my personal opinions; it will be interesting to see how they pan out over the next few months, should the Conservatives manage to rejuvenate their currently shrinking lead, of course...

Dominic Norrish
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1 comment:

Bob Harrison said...

Thanks for your reflections Dom....the more light(from any source and especially from people who "really" should know!)

I don't buy your unemployment argument as the vulnerable projects have not yet employed anyone, although your suugestion of strong links between the tories and the big hitters in the construction industry might have more legs.
Either way if the conservatives are elected then the "growing crisis of relevance" facing our schools and colleges will accelerate.

Incidentally, if the electorate were clearabout the choices facing them BSF would survive,perhaps in a refined and speedier process.

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