By Bob Harrison
Shadow schools minister Nick Gibb MP attracted a full house for his session on Conservative education policy at the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust’s 17th annual conference in Birmingham.
But his Q&A session left heads and BSF partners with more questions than answers. Chief among them is what will happen to BSF contracts nearing ‘financial close’ (actual signing), where huge efforts, community hopes and aspirations and millions of pounds have already been invested. At the time of the 2010 election this could involve up to 500 schools and more than 500,000 learners and teachers.
His conference presentation to an audience of about 150 had been innocuous enough. The MP for Bognor Regis, who had a career as a chartered accountant before entering politics, acknowledged that his mother, an ex-primary school headteacher, had helped shape his views.
He talked about “a cohort of headteachers and leaders with energy and commitment”. But added that they were weary and ground down by “bureaucracy and ideology from the government”. He was adamant that “what matters is what works” and he confirmed that a future Conservative government education policy would be based on “evidence and not ideology”.
But the alarm bells sounded when he faced a direct question from a headteacher from Devon whose school is coping with more than 70 per cent temporary and unsuitable accommodation. Would there be a commitment to continue with existing BSF projects, he was asked. “We will not be in the business of undoing contracts entered into, but our longterm aim is to get away from this approach,” came the reply.
The implications of this were not lost on those involved in BSF. Despite the efforts of Partnerships for Schools to condense and simplify the planning and procurement process, it is still viewed by companies as overly tortuous, lengthy and costly. The actual signing of contracts does not happen until beyond midway of the process, after considerable time, money and efforts have already been ploughed in.
If it is correct that only contracts that have actually been signed will be honoured, this leaves hundreds of projects currently in the BSF planning pipeline but not formally “contracted”, in a potential state of limbo and paralysis, an extremely worrying prospect.
Construction companies sensitive to lack of shared clarity and assurances
It leaves the the ICT and construction companies, who have invested millions in the bid process, and are currently still preparing bids (11 projects, worth £1 billion, were announced this week), uncertain of their prospects for success. It also leaves tens of thousands of young people and teachers, currently with raised expectations, facing severe disappointment in the event that a new government refuses to support them.
Construction companies are already highly sensitive to the current lack of shared clarity and assurances. The senior executive of a leading construction company in BSF told me: "We are uncertain about the future for BSF given the general election and the Conservative position and the related Policy Exchange Report. We are currently looking at alternatives for future projects." Another top construction executive said: "Just as Partnerships for Schools' BSF systems have become much more workable, it looks as though an incoming government could scrap them. We are now very unsure about the future of BSF."
Technology companies share the anxiety of their colleagues in construction. This is a fairly typical response from an ICT supplier: "While we are unsure about the future of BSF given the political uncertainties, we remain confident that technology will still be a critical element for future learning…"
The dismay among those involved in BSF at the SSAT conference looks like being something that will figure in the political to-ing and fro-ing in the run-up to the general election. It's a scenario that is not lost on education secretary Ed Balls MP who this week challenged the Conservatives to "come clean on which new schools face the axe under their planned cuts to Labour's school building program".
That's party politics for you. However, those learners, teachers, parents, communities and businesses who stand to improve their circumstances in the biggest national investment in learning since the Victorians, will be looking for assurances that go beyond party politics. And in the teeth of the worst recession in living memory, when capital projects are seen as a way of investing in the future while protecting industry and commerce, there is a growing feeling that the current challenges facing education should ensure that it is not used as a political football.
Specialist Schools and Academies Trust Conference
21st Century Schooling: The Globalised Challenge
Bob Harrison is an education consultant who works with the National College for Leadership of Schools and Children's Services, the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency and Toshiba UK. You can read his blog on the Futurelab Flux website. He runs Support for Education and Training.