A High Court judge ruled that Michael Gove abused his powers when he axed BSF projects for six local authorities. Sal McKeown gives her personal perspective on BSF and special schools in Kent.
“Wasteful and bureaucratic” were the words education secretary Michael Gove MP used when he announced the demise of Building Schools for the Future (BSF). I was working with Accessible Futures Ltd and Northgate at the time of the election, supporting Kent County Council as it sought to modernise a group of special schools. “Shameful and wrong headed” were the adjectives that came to my mind when I heard of Gove's BSF decision.
Kent is an interesting authority when it comes to special needs provision. Back in the Victorian days when they believed in the curative powers of fresh air many special schools and convalescent homes were built along the coast; these days they would probably be built near a motorway as transport links have become more important than ozone. So Thanet in Kent, which takes in Margate, Ramsgate and Broadstairs, has more than its share of special schools. However, the buildings are in a deplorable state.
Accessible Futures Ltd was working with five schools, each of which had its own distinctive problems. There was Foreland, a special school for children with complex and profound difficulties. This was to become a co:location with Hartsdown Technology College in Margate. Because of the nature of their disabilities, some children die before they finish their schooling at Foreland and one of the sensitive organisational challenges facing the BSF team was how to relocate their ashes to the new school grounds. Is this what Gove meant by wasteful and bureaucratic?
St Anthony’s School caters for students aged 5-16 with a range of behavioural, emotional, social and learning difficulties. They had a good ratio of computers to children but needed robust laptops for the children who have dyspraxia or might misuse computers on a bad day. They also needed an internet system that worked all the time and not just on a good day. Not a lot to ask really, but it did involve several meetings.
Laleham Gap School is the county's specialist provision for high functioning pupils aged 3-16 with autistic spectrum disorders or speech and language disorders. It is housed in an Edwardian edifice held up by scaffolding. It was rumoured to be a convalescent home in the First World War. Whether that is true or not, it would be fair to say that the excellent work of the staff is undermined by the building.
Children with autism can respond in a very extreme way to visual and auditory stimuli and the smell of school dinners permeates the corridors while the huts out the back are very noisy when it rains. Laleham Gap has a residential unit for those children who cannot go home. We did spend a lot of time discussing how we would implement ICT so that the residents would have the same access to all the entertainment and learning tools that children might have at home: Facebook, digital cameras, iPods, Wiis and their like.
'Decisions about safety are balanced with children’s freedoms and cannot be rushed'
We also devoted valuable and expensive meeting time to consider how we could keep vulnerable children safe and whether fingerprint recognition would be a good idea. While it would give them instant access to the building, might they be targeted by the local scallies and forced to let intruders into residential areas? This was a challenge for the architects and planners but not, I would argue, wasteful or bureaucratic. Security is paramount in special schools – sometimes to stop abusive parents getting to children who have been taken away from them by the courts, sometimes to stop those who prey on children with learning disabilities. Decisions about safety have to be balanced with children’s freedoms and these discussions cannot be rushed.
When Michael Gove criticised the BSF process, he complained about the time taken to reach decisions and start the building process, “By contrast, Hong Kong International Airport, which was built on a barren rock in the South China Sea and can process 50 million passenger movements every year, took just six years to build – from start to finish."
Well good for Hong Kong airport, but it would not be a great place to educate children with disabilities Mr Gove, and I doubt whether anyone would want to spend five years or more of their life there. Here’s hoping that when you follow the High Court judge's ruling, and reconsider the BSF projects in which communities across the UK invested funds and their hopes for the future, you will demonstrate political creativity rather than spite, and improve the life chances of the disabled children of Kent.
Sally McKeown is a freelance writer and is an expert in special needs and inclusion