Select Committee on Education and Skills Seventh Report

5  Conclusions

165. The amount of money spent on improving the secondary school estate has increased dramatically over the last ten years and the problems of buildings in disrepair, poor quality temporary classrooms and inadequate toilets and heating systems have been addressed. Building Schools for the Future has taken the issues surrounding the schools estate into a different dimension, as it argues for properly designed new school buildings as a means of improving attainment and transforming education.

166. The planned rebuilding or refurbishment of the entire secondary estate provides opportunities for improving the quality of learning environments, for addressing issues of how best to engage children in learning and to make a significant contribution to issues of sustainability. Before we take a further look at the way these issues are being managed within BSF, however, we think it important to address a more fundamental question.

Is BSF the best way to spend £45 billion on education?

167. 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.

168. In essence, the question here is whether, in a system where the problems of leaky, dilapidated schools have been addressed effectively over the last decade, the commitment to rebuild and refurbish all secondary school buildings through BSF makes sense. Is the £45 billion budget too much money to be spending on 'hardware' (buildings) rather than 'software' (people and practices), when the crucial factor in improving attainment is the quality of the educational experience in schools rather than the quality of the built estate?

169. The Minister for Schools told us that 800 or so schools had already been rebuilt during the lifetime of the Government before BSF comes on stream.[140] There must at least be a question about the extent to which the secondary schools amongst these 800 schools will need to be rebuilt or refurbished over the lifetime of the project. There is an argument for a more targeted approach. BSF has begun by providing resources to areas with low levels of educational attainment. Once those areas which have lower than average levels of attainment have their projects in place, it could be argued that investment to replace buildings becomes less of a priority. That might be the point at which BSF could be drawn to a close and a different approach to capital and other investment in schools could be adopted.

170. Money might be used explicitly to make buildings more environmentally sustainable, or be invested in teacher training and innovative approaches to teaching, or even used in different educational sectors altogether, such as early years and the foundation stage or research in higher education.

171. 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 management of the BSF project

172. The problems that exist with the management of BSF all stem from the fact that the programme aims are diffuse. The declared aims shift over time, which does not help local authorities in their attempts to do the best they can to provide improved school buildings and more effective education in their areas. The good news is that the project is still at an early enough stage for problems to be effectively addressed.

173. One of the main issues is the way in which the project is managed overall. Too many organisations and parts of organisations are involved in approving projects. Partnerships for Schools is designed to be the delivery vehicle, and it does appear to be becoming more effective under its new leadership, but it still appears to be essentially a construction procurement organisation without a full understanding of all the other factors that local authorities are supposed to balance in drafting their proposals. The DCSF itself has an interest through its schools capital division, where formal responsibility for the project lies, but various other divisions of the Department have a role too, each requiring the part of the bid relating to their area of responsibility to be approved separately. The Schools Commissioner also has a role. We have been told that different parts of the DCSF wait passively for authorities to come to them to deal with their particular area of responsibility. This is clearly inefficient and unhelpful for local authorities.

174. As was noted in the Capability Review of the DfES which was published last year,[141] the Five Year Strategy for Children and Learners, published in 2004, said that the aim was for the Department to become more strategic. The review concluded that this strategic approach now needed to be put into practice,[142] and we consider that the BSF programme would be a very good place in which to introduce some more strategic management with less day to day intervention. As the Capability Review noted,

"Recent White Papers have identified new roles for local authorities, in particular around commissioning services. However, the Department has not yet clarified and communicated a coherent view of local authorities' responsibilities and how they fit together in driving delivery."[143]

We believe that many local authorities would identify with this as their experience of BSF.

175. The BSF project provides a good test as to whether the DCSF has taken on board all of the lessons of the Capability Review, and at present it appears that it has not. More effective strategic planning, a more clearly defined view of the role of local authorities and less micro-management would undoubtedly help the authorities who are developing their plans for BSF.


176. We discussed earlier the need to bring greater clarity to the role of local authorities. The Government has to decide whether it really is going to "focus the Department on developing capacity at local level to change children's lives, and devolve resource and power to local level", in respect of BSF. Currently, as we suggested earlier in the report, the Department appears reluctant to give local authorities a substantial degree of autonomy over how they design education for their communities. We believe that, within a clear basic framework, local authorities should be given more freedom to shape their local school system as they consider appropriate.

177. 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. The logical place for this gateway is Partnership for Schools, but a Partnership for Schools that has people who can address questions about transformative learning and other policy issues as well as more bricks and mortar issues. 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?

178. What will success in Building Schools for the Future look like? How will the DCSF know if the £45 billion provided for Building Schools for the Future has been well spent?

Will it be:-

179. There are clearly other issues which need to be defined in order for these questions to be answered, but this is not intended to be a rhetorical question. We set out below recommendations for ways in which we consider the process can be made more effective and more transparent, by bringing clarity and focus. We believe that there should be a set of clear objectives by which 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 in its response to this report. 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.


180. As we said earlier, there needs to be a proper discussion about what transforming education actually means. One witness told us

"Henry Ford used to quip that when asked what people wanted in the way of transport, they were likely to respond with 'a faster horse.' That's a real problem for modernisers caught between the realisation that the current ways of working in schools are outmoded, but future models remain unproven."[144]

181. The DCSF website emphasises that 'diversity and collaboration' are 'the two main vehicles for raising standards and driving improvements in teaching and learning'; but it has not provided a clear steer on what changes schools need to make on the ground to transform education. As a result schools will assume that it probably favours the 'faster horse': more of the same, with better levels of attainment generally and more intensive use of ICT. If it does want to be more imaginative—and we believe that it should be—then there needs to be a more explicit discussion of what might be done. There should not be a prescriptive approach, but, as we suggested with our recommendations on One School Pathfinders and Ofsted, schools and authorities should be supported and encouraged by the DCSF, and by Ministers in particular, to explore new approaches which may help to improve attainment overall and particularly for children from disadvantaged backgrounds who typically have low levels of engagement with the school system.

182. We have recommended that there should be a knowledge and learning strategy to share and resolve issues arising from the BSF procurement and design process. It would be equally valuable to have a more systematic approach to sharing innovations in pedagogy and approaches to learning as part of the process of enabling local authorities and school leaders to come to judgements on how they might address the question of transforming education, perhaps through a new national centre for pedagogy.


183. The issue of sustainability was not addressed when BSF was launched, yet now it is a central part of the project. We welcome this change, but it is not yet clear how the aspirations on sustainability will become reality. Again flexibility and the encouragement of innovation are key.

184. We look forward to examining the experience of those projects that will benefit from the £110 million being provided to produce 200 low carbon schools over the next three years. The Government must also make judgements on the costs of projects on the basis of whole life costs and not just the capital cost of the initial construction. It must continually be emphasised that sustainability is not just a matter of low carbon emissions; it also relates to matters such as transport infrastructure, sourcing of food, community links and possibilities for economic regeneration.

185. The policy initiative that all new schools designed from now on must be carbon neutral is welcome, but it is now important that the policy is effectively delivered. We would welcome further information on how the carbon emissions of school buildings are going to be measured, and we urge a consistent approach for all schools.

Scrutiny of Building Schools for the Future

186. Finally, we regard this report as the beginning of the process of scrutiny of Building Schools for the Future, not as an end in itself. This inquiry has ranged over a very large number of issues, not all of which we have been able to discuss here in the detail that they deserve. We encourage our successors to examine how the difficulties we have identified are addressed, and we look forward to seeing the schools as they open. The Government's increased capital expenditure on schools is welcome; the task now is to ensure that is spent as effectively as possible.

140   Q 761 Back

141   Capability Review of the Department for Education and Skills, Prime Minister's Delivery Unit, July 2006. Back

142   ibid, page 18. Back

143   ibid, page 20. Back

144   Ev 332 Back

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