Thursday, 15 July 2010

BSF - The Argument Everyone Lost

The decision to scrap BSF was a rare political event – an argument that everybody lost. The government was bruised, Gove and the DfE were humiliated and the staff and pupils of over 700 cancelled schools were left devastated.

The DfE is struggling to regain the momentum it had worked hard to develop since the election. A quick search of Google news shows that more, and not less column inches are being devoted to the story as local communities come to term with the decision. Take the case of Enfield, where funding for 5 schools was cut, including a pupil referral unit (PRU) which served the entire borough. The Chair of the PRU’s board yesterday called the decision a “disaster” which “effects every school in Enfield”

There has been more pain for the coalition as Conservative MP’s have come forward criticising the cuts and defending BSF in their own constituencies. Patrick Mercer MP challenged Mr Gove in the House on how he could justify stopping investment in a school that when it rains “children have to stop being taught in order to hold buckets under the leaking roof."

When taken along side some of the vitriolic criticism from the Labour benches, including the rather unparliamentary assertion that the Education Secretary was a “miserable pipsqueak", it capped a terrible period for Mr Gove.

Yesterday in the Commons, Mr Gove appeared to indicate that he would bow to pressure from all sides and agree to a review of future capital spending in schools. While Lib Dem education minister Sarah Teather added "just because some projects have stopped under BSF, it does not mean they will not happen in the future"

If this is indeed true, what was the political rationale behind making such a high profile and damaging statement in the first instance?

Yesterday, Conservative MP for Bridgewater Ian Liddell-Grainger seemed to indicate that he had talked a concession from the Secretary of State, who he claims has agreed to “review the whole scheme”.

Do these developments mark a tactical climb down in the face of unexpected pressure or an attempt to draw a line under the issue? If so, the MP's suggestion that “Michael wasn't aware of all the facts to do with the Bridgwater scheme” will do little to help repair the damage.

The Education Secretary will certainly look back on these past days with some regret. Despite his recent attempts to turn the fire back onto the Labour party, and Ed Balls in particular, his reputation as one of most studious and rigorous members of the coalition cabinet has taken a real hit.

But as with all things inside the Westminster bubble, this storm will pass. The real losers will be the pupils, teachers and communities which had been anticipating a new school. A case in point is Sandwell, the community in the West Midlands who were told their schools would go ahead only to find out the next day that in fact all nine planned schools would be cancelled.

These short-sighted cuts will be felt most harshly across council boundary lines. Authorities which applied early to the BSF programme will see all of their schools built while their neighbours, like Sandwell, will get nothing. Student migration is an inevitable consequence of such an imbalance.

In the long term, this decision will damage UK PLC. Germany, which is also dealing with a large deficit and the need for universal cuts, has managed to significantly increase education spending (7.2%) sighting the need to maintain German economic competitiveness in the future. The BSF programme was an attempt to ensure that our children were educated in facilities which were fit for the next century, not the last.

The argument made by Phillip Hammond, that great teaching does not need "sparkling, architect-designed buildings" is correct in so far as it acknowledges that teaching is the most important aspect of any child's education. The government's mistake is to take this argument to the illogical conclusion that environment and facilities has no impact on the quality and breadth of education a school can offer. It most certainly does.

Although this is an intellectually necessary leap for a government desperate to legitimise a free schools agenda that may see classes taught in converted office blocks, it completely ignores the power of the teaching environment to inspire students and raise aspirations. Surely this is a point that would not be lost on the Eton alumni which inhabit the coalition benches.

Sadly, the emotive nature of the debate has obscured the real issue – the question of whether or not the cancelling of the entire programme was the result of reasoned argument or an ideological decision.

Certainly there was scope to reduce the costs associated with BSF, but to cancel the scheme at the drop of a hat, while promising new funding for the free schools programme smacks of political dogma.

BSF was a unique opportunity to prepare the state education system for a changeable future, and to equip all of our children with the skills and resources they need to compete in an uncertain world.

By moving so decisively against a capital investment that would bring universal benefit, Michael Gove has used up a lot of goodwill among teachers.

It is this goodwill, which the coalition will need to rely on if they are to successfully implement their education reform agenda in the coming years.

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