Building Schools for the Future is an immensely ambitious programme designed to rebuild or refurbish all secondary schools in England over 15 years at a cost of £45 billion, with local authorities participating in a series of 15 'waves'. It is the most comprehensive of a number of initiatives to improve the schools estate that the Government has introduced since 1997. As well as being a project to improve radically the fabric of school buildings and provide massive investment in ICT, it has been explicitly designed to transform the educational experiences of pupils and, more recently, to embed sustainability.
The project has been delayed against its original timetable, which would have seen 100 schools built by the end of 2007. As it is, the first mainstream schools built under BSF will open in September. There clearly have been problems with the authorities in the early waves of BSF, but the fact that the project has slipped from its early targets is not necessarily significant. What does matter is whether those authorities who have suffered delays have been able to resolve problems and come up with proposals that are robust and achievable, and whether lessons have been learned for those authorities coming into the process at later stages so there is no repetition of the same delays and difficulties. Our inquiry has led us to recognise the importance of early planning and so to believe that delay in the programme is a less significant risk to its success than inadequate preliminary thinking and clarity at a local level about what is required.
Time to plan
A regular theme in our evidence was that people involved in BSF, particularly at the school level, did not have sufficient time to think about what they wanted for their new school. The participation of teachers, other school staff and pupils in the planning process is vital to the success of school redevelopment projects, and this needs to be acknowledged by all those involved. As the comments collected by Teachers' TV show, those working in schools have a clear understanding of what is needed in a building to create a positive learning environment. Involving them in the earliest stages may require time, but will help to develop robust plans which will contribute to the success of the process.
There is a very strong argument that the initial 'visioning' phase should be lengthened. All authorities in the waves so far announced should already be addressing the issue of what they want of their schools. The difficulties faced by earliest waves of authorities in coping with deadlines suggest that this would be time well spent.
While we accept that it is the viability of a project as it is developed that is the main risk factor in a BSF project, it seems to us that there are risks associated with PFI as a funding method. The Government needs to set out more clearly than it has done so far its assessment of the sustainability of the levels of revenue commitments across local authorities in general; how DCSF and Partnerships for Schools make judgements about how well authorities have planned to ensure that schools will be sustainable given projected future numbers of pupils; and the lessons that it has learned from those PFI funded schools which have been forced to close.
Given the amount of expenditure which is being authorised, it is right that the DCSF should satisfy itself that it is being spent appropriately. On the other hand, it does not look much like devolving resource and power to local level if there is a detailed check list of Government objectives which have to be addressed to allow a project to be signed off.
The Building Schools for the Future project is a bold initiative, and some of what we heard about the constraints on development at local level suggest that the Government is nervous about just how bold it has been. While it is important to ensure that expenditure is properly monitored, we have seen no evidence that local authorities have put forward particularly inappropriate plans for their BSF projects. The Government should have the courage of its convictions, and allow local authorities greater flexibility to develop local solutions within a clear framework of priorities, such as the need to promote innovative approaches to learning and the need to embed sustainability .
If the Government is serious about wanting BSF to provide educational transformation, it ought to be encouraging local authorities to be innovative. The crucial question here, and one that the Department has not fully answered, is what do we want education to be in the 21st century? A clear statement of the national ambitions for 21st century education could help to provide guidance and challenge to the local decision-making process.
We believe that ICT is a vital area for the development of education over the coming years, but that does not mean that each school needs to have a bespoke system created for it which differs from systems in all other schools. We recommend that information about systems in use is made widely known amongst authorities in later waves of BSF so that they can take advantage of the experience of those which have already procured their ICT.
All BSF projects must be approached with a view not just to providing environments compatible with the current state of educational thinking, but with an eye to future needs and developments. As part of that process it is vitally important lessons are learned from the earliest schools and projects in the process. There should be a post-occupancy review of every school within the BSF programme so that a proper assessment can be made of what has worked well and what has caused difficulties, on procurement and construction issues and also on the design and conception of the school. These reviews should be given the widest possible circulation so that all those involved in BSF so that all those involved in BSF can ensure that mistakes are not repeated, that good ideas are adopted more widely and that the desired flexibility for the future is in place. Transformation waves and in the future, can use them to ensure that mistakes are not repeated, that good ideas of education for the 21st century will only occur if we learn the lessons about what works best.
It is obviously important to safeguard the position of pupils currently in a school which is being rebuilt or refurbished. It is unacceptable to build schools for the future if the current generation suffers, but it is also clear to us that schools which are attempting innovative ways of delivering education should be given credit for that. There needs to be flexibility in the inspection framework to take account of a school's position in the BSF programme when that is appropriate. We recommend that Ofsted, in consultation with the DCSF, should draw up and publish for consultation a protocol on how its inspection regime is to be modified for schools in BSF.
The schools estate contributes 2% to national carbon emissions overall, but that figure represents almost 15% of UK public sector carbon emissions. If the Government is to meet a target of at least 60% reduction against the 1990 baseline, and if it intends to set an example by the way in which it looks after the public sector building stock, it clearly has to address the issue of schools' carbon emissions.
We welcome the extra funding the Government is to provide to help achieve its target of carbon neutrality. We hope that this will be carried forward into the general funding of the BSF programme. However, the Government should specify what proportion of the total carbon emissions will be achieved through carbon offsetting. The ideal would clearly be for all new school buildings and plant to be carbon neutral. To make schools sustainable there are likely to be extra capital costs, but these can be offset against lower running costs. While in Government accounting terms capital and revenue are always accounted for separately, it makes sense to shoulder higher capital costs if over the whole life of a building it has the same or lower costs as a building which is not constructed with the principle of carbon reduction in mind.
Is BSF the best way to spend £45 billion on education?
Our inquiry has focused on the way in which the BSF process is working and how the process might be more effective. We believe, however, that it is worth asking some searching questions about the basis of the project, if for no other reason than to give the DCSF an opportunity to restate the purposes of BSF and to demonstrate that it has discussed these difficult issues.
We are not arguing that BSF is a waste of money or that it should not proceed. Indeed it represents an unprecedented opportunity to ensure that all of the physical spaces which pupils occupy effectively support their learning. What we are saying is that, given the scale of the project and the amount of money proposed to be spent, there is a danger that everyone involved will concentrate on getting through to the end and that the question of whether the project's scope and aims remain appropriate will not be asked. This seems to us to be a good time to take stock of these issues, with the first of the mainstream BSF schools set to open in the autumn and all the authorities through to Wave 6 planning to reshape secondary school provision in their areas. We ask the DCSF in its reply to give us a considered response to the issues we raise here so that we can be assured that it does have a process of regularly reviewing the question of whether this is best way in which to spend £45 billion on education.
The role of the DCSF and a single gateway for BSF
We believe that, within a basic framework, local authorities should be given more freedom to shape their local school system as they consider appropriate. One thing which could make life much more straightforward would be to establish one gateway for an authority's discussions with central Government about its BSF project. The DfES recognised the inefficiency caused by the need for schools to have multiple contacts with the Department on matters such as funding and standards when it introduced the Single Conversation with Schools. Something similar is needed for BSF. A single gateway would assist the DCSF and local authorities and schools to deal with the tensions that inevitably arise in programmes of this sort between creating maximum local decision-making and opportunities for maximum efficiency through standardisation and national purchasing.
How will we know if BSF has been a success?
We believe that there should be a set of clear objectives by which we will be able to judge how well the project is progressing. We ask the DCSF to define what it considers to be the key indicators that will demonstrate the success or otherwise of BSF. Given that new Public Service Agreement targets will be set this autumn for the new Comprehensive Spending Review, we also recommend that progress on BSF ought to be one of the areas which the Department should have as one of its high level targets.