Wednesday, February 06, 2008

School modernisation slips again

Tuesday, 5 February 2008, 17:30 GMT

School modernisation slips again
Gordon Brown opening Bristol's Brunel Academy
Bristol's Brunel Academy was the first to open
A £45bn government scheme to modernise England's secondary schools has fallen further behind target, MPs have heard.

Originally work on 100 schools under the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme was due to be completed by now, but only nine are open.

Recently the government said a dozen would have been done by 2007-08, then another 50 next year.

Now schools minister Jim Knight has said in a Commons written answer that only 35 will be ready next year.

In response to a query from a Labour MP, Mr Knight said that the programme was progressing well.

The first BSF school, Bristol Brunel Academy, had been opened by the prime minister last September.

"Local authorities plans show that we expect 12 new schools to be open by December 2008, 35 more in 2008-09, 115 more in 2009-10, 165 more in 2010-11, and then around 200 a year and rising thereafter," said Mr Knight.

However, the last time the government was asked about this, in October, Mr Knight had given the figure of 50 more for 2008-09.

'Billions spent'

The shadow schools secretary, Michael Gove, said the initial target had been to rebuild or refurbish every school - there are about 3,500 - by 2015.

"The government's school building programme is in danger of descending into chaos," he said.

Ministers did not seem able to handle a project of this magnitude. Billions of pounds were being spent but parents and children were not seeing the results, he went on.

"It is of little surprise that, as with other failures, they have tried to bury this bad news, in this case by trying to hide it in an obscure written answer to a patsy question from a Labour MP on the government payroll."

The Partnerships for Schools organisation which runs the BSF programme has proposed savings of up to £250m and a streamlining of the procurement process.

There will be fewer sample schemes and more emphasis on producing the highest-quality designs for new schools.

Key recommendations include cutting the overall procurement time from 82 weeks to 75, and selecting two lead bidders after 29 weeks rather than 44.

The proposals are expected to be considered by ministers later this month.

'Devil in detail'

Chief executive Tim Byles said: "It is widely accepted that delivery of the BSF programme has picked up pace considerably over the past year.

"A package of measures designed to ensure that local authorities are ready to hit the ground running as soon as they enter the programme has already made a real difference to the timetable for delivery."

The director of the British Council for School Environments, Ty Goddard, said: "These preliminary findings are, we hope, a genuine attempt to answer major disquiet over the present BSF procurement process around such issues as duplication, achieving value for money and the translation of educational vision into reality."

But he added: "Today's announcement doesn't represent the root and branch changes we called for.

"The devil is, as always, in the detail, and the focus must be on real change for all those involved in the procurement process in the future."

The scheme was first announced by Gordon Brown when he was Chancellor in his Budget in 2004.

He said: "Our capital investment allocations will ensure for every constituency in the country that by 2015 every secondary school can be refurbished or rebuilt with world class technology in every school and the best state-of-the-art learning support in every classroom."

This was later downgraded to major remodelling of "at least three" schools starting in every local authority by 2016.

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