Guest essay: Paul Clein reflects on the axed Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme
This has been a long drawn out process from day one (2003) with numerous hurdles to surmount, often seemingly purposeless, before any progress could be made. Under normal circumstances in former times, a Council would have replaced a secondary school building with the money coming via a credit approval, in effect permission for the Council to borrow the money and for repayment of that loan by the Council over 25 years or more to be underwritten by Government. From start to finish that whole process usually took about two and a half years. It took over five years from initial application for BSF Wave 2 until a spade was put into the ground for any new school in Liverpool in this programme. I am surprised the average delay is estimated nationwide as only two years. It is also important to take on board that whilst BSF was primarily about better buildings and better facilities it was also about other things such as having a more flexible and more relevant curriculum, improved teaching methods and even things like having a differently tailored school day.
For BSF, the New Labour Government pretty much insisted on projects being financed through PFI which added considerably to the legal complexities and initial costs as well as costing more over the life of the PFI. This was done for three reasons. Firstly, using PFI meant that school premises were taken out of the "control" of local authorities (in reality, notional "control" anyway). Secondly, as an off balance sheet transaction - just like the Militant loans in the late 1980s in this respect - these costs would not appear as an increment on the PSBR, the government spending/borrowing measure. This is a nonsense of course as ultimately these projects still have to be paid for with taxpayers' money some time in the future. Thirdly, the Labour Government knew full well that the PFI process would inevitably add between 6 and 12 months to the timescale meaning that the financial pipeline could be and was constricted to slow down the rate of expenditure - especially evident after the 2012 Olympics was won for London.
I chaired the Council's BSF Board for several years up to the end of March 2008. The BSF process was overly bureaucratic and nightmarishly tortuous then, so much so that two of our most senior LEA officers leading on BSF took early retirement at the end of 2007 as they weren't willing to deal with all the unnecessary nonsense any more. I am told that even more stages were added to the process since then. I shudder to think what it was like. Nonetheless, I held out for a non-PFI route for Wave 2 and - to my surprise - won the argument. I believe this will save the Council and its schools a minimum of ÃÂ£5 million and possibly over ÃÂ£25 million over the next 30 years. Not only that - because PFI contracts take legal precedence over any other liability, payments to PFI contractors would come first before jobs and services. In an era of tighter than ever public finances, you don't have to be a rocket scientist to work out the possible consequences of that.
One of the more nonsensical impediments was the insistence of Government and Partnership For Schools, PfS, (the quango set up to oversee the BSF programme nationwide, CEO salary ÃÂ£216k per year) that, because the national picture indicated that about 50% of schools needed full replacement, about 30% needed significant refurbishment and about 20% needed more minor refurbishment, with the Labour Government's usual one size must fit all mindset, any BSF programme proposal business case had more or less to conform to this approximate mix of individual projects. This meant that certain schools needing full replacement, which ideally Liverpool would have liked to include in Wave 2, had to wait until Wave 6 for inclusion in BSF.
In addition, government had a number of hidden agendas. After 2006, they used the BSF process as a means of forcing Councils both to close schools more quickly and to create more Academies and Trusts, free of local authority "control". Harold Wilson once said the governance of Britain was about "the orderly management of gradual decline". In the same way, the governance of Liverpool's school system in the past 15 years has been about the orderly management of the gradual decline in pupil numbers caused by falling birth rates before and during that period. That falling birth rate made school closures inevitable in the medium and long term, so the art of orderly management consists of amalgamating and closing schools in such a way that breadth / variety of provision, sufficiency of places, continuity of education for pupils and preservation of buildings in best condition are maintained. Imposing arbitrary deadlines, demanding cast iron assurances of long term viability (so as not to frighten the PFI finance horses) and favouring those schools most willing to become academies and trusts all combined to force closures on a faster timescale than would have been the case ordinarily. A good example is Croxteth Comprehensive School, which closed in July 2010 at least two years earlier than might otherwise have been expected. Its decline in numbers was accelerated by the stark message conveyed to prospective parents by its removal from the list of Wave 2 schools as it no longer fulfilled the long term viability criteria demanded by Government. Indeed, it could be argued that BSF removed any chance Croxteth had of reversing its decline in numbers and staying open.
The policy of the previous Tory government was to have fewer, larger schools, using Local Management of Schools as one of the tools to force closure of less popular schools. In effect, the Labour government carried on the same policy using BSF as the means to do so, as - ironically - their real terms increase in per pupil funding in their first few years in office improved the viability index for some schools which might otherwise have struggled to survive.
The Business Case for any BSF programme was also made subject to approval / veto by the Office of the Schools Commissioner (OSC), another government quango whose main purpose was to promote the creation of Academies and Trusts, as this was seen by Government as the only tenable route to raising standards. Because, in the Government's view, too few Academies were being created voluntarily, this was used a means of forcing more reluctant LEAs to play ball. If the OSC believed that your BSF proposals did not have sufficient "diversity" they would be knocked back. In this context "diversity" was a reference to the LEA having identified and encouraged sponsors for creation of Academies and Trusts or having cajoled schools into going down this route. No Academies and/or Trusts = no BSF money. I compared this to having a condemned man help build the scaffold on which he was to be hung. When we had a long meeting with the OSC in March 2007, I pointed out that the improvement in standards in Liverpool (since maintained) had taken place without any Academies or Trusts. I asked for the evidence - as OFSTED always did - for their belief that having some Academies and Trusts was the only means of sustainable improvement. I was never provided with that evidence.
The cynicism of the last Labour government in this is breathtaking. In Liverpool, the nuts and bolts of the process for Wave 6 were agreed at a meeting of officials with the then Leader and Executive Member in July 2008. It was nearly two years later - March 2010, coincidentally (?) just prior to the general and local elections being called - before the Outline Business Case (OBC) for Liverpool Wave 6 was approved by the DCSF - in effect in principle approval - meaning the Final Business Case would then take who knows how long to be agreed, thus ensuring that contracts could not be signed in time to safeguard any individual projects before the inevitable coalition axe fell. This was after it took over 7 months for approval of that OBC by PFS. The situation was foreseen by Labour MP and Chair of the Commons Education Select Committee, Barry Sheerman, in January 2009 who expressed his fear that the Labour Government was making spending commitments in education for which funding would not be available as the recession and credit crunch kicked in. Of course, he was probably thinking more in terms of a Labour Government elected for a fourth term in office having to deal with that particular hostage to fortune. In effect, the coalition was set up by the outgoing government who knew they were going to lose, had maxed out all the nation's credit cards and knew the money wasn't there for BSF and a lot of other things. Remember Labour Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Liam Byrne's note to his coalition successor - "there's no money left"? Why did the Wave 6 BSF process take so long? Because Labour knew it wasn't going to happen and left a minefield for someone else to negotiate. The fact is that the amount of committed BSF funding for Liverpool removed by the coalition government is nil. There wasn't any and the final decision on funding for the rest of the BSF programme would not - could not - have been made until the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) for 2011-2014. Labour ministers may have claimed that funding was committed but this was the political equivalent of knowingly issuing a rubber cheque. The timescale for completion nationwide of Wave 7 BSF was also extended way past 2020.
There is no doubt the coalition government could and should have handled this matter less brutally. Many of these projects still need to be done over the next few years and it is a tenable position in the current economic circumstances to say to Councils that the tortuous BSF process is too inefficient, the timescale for wholesale school replacement would have to be extended because of the inevitable public spending cuts, the credit approval route would be used instead to prioritise those schools in the poorest accommodation and those schools included within prospective BSF programmes which had had significant investment in recent years would have to go to the back of a queue which this government would aim to see cleared within, say, 10 years. I still believe that something like this will emerge in due course, possibly within 12 months.
I was very disappointed to see proposals knocked back in Liverpool which need to be done if we are to give our young people the educational facilities they deserve. Michael Gove is wrong to suggest that there is little or no evidence that new facilities improve attainment. We have seen this happen in Liverpool over the past decade. I am convinced it is no coincidence that standards here have improved so much at the same time as the Council invested so much in better facilities. Whilst I have always acknowledged that higher Government investment during its first five years contributed to this, it is still breathtaking to see our current Labour administration using this whole issue solely for political advantage not least because I spent such a lot of time in my first five years as the Council's education spokesperson dealing with the myriad consequences of chronic underfunding of the city's schools and minimal capital investment by our last Labour Council administration. Jan used to call them the bucket calls - "come and see the buckets in our classrooms to catch the water leaking through the roof."
One other thing. With the - in my view wrong-headed - New Labour Government's overwhelming priority for secondary school replacement, where will this leave the planned primary school capital programme which was much discussed 2-3 years ago but seemed to be slipping increasingly on to the furthest of back burners under the last government? A shift of priority towards primary school transformation nationally would arguably be more effective in raising standards in the long term.
Paul Clein is a Liberal Democrat councillor on Liverpool council. He served as education supremo in the previous Lib-Dem administration until 2008.