How scrapping BSF flies in the face of the evidence

9 07 2010

Michael Gove’s decision to scrap the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) school-building programme has morphed into the government’s first real difficulty.

The botched release of the list of affected schools created a sense of farce around the move, and the growing discontent among government MPs whose constituency schools have been hit by the decision has forced Gove onto the back foot.

Little wonder. Look at the evidence of two independent reviews of the BSF programme, and the rationale for axeing the entire programme melts away.

The National Audit Office published a report in February 2009 that found that the programme had suffered from over-optimistic early targets, time-consuming bureaucracy, and rising costs due to a decision to increase the scope of BSF and inflation of building material prices.

But despite this, the NAO report found that BSF schools were cheaper than standalone academies – the model of school that Gove prefers to fund from the public purse.

Setting up the first BSF schemes was expensive, but Partnerships for Schools – the national agency set up to oversee the BSF programme – subsequently streamlined the process to partly reduce the costs. BSF’s model of using a regular partner to develop all the schools in an area was found to lead to quicker procurement of new schools further down the line.

Following the NAO report, the ever-feisty Public Accounts Committee produced its own critical report into BSF in June 2009. The PAC report focused its attention on the government’s initial timescale for refurbishing the national secondary school estate, which it said had been optimistic and unrealistic, with initial projects taking years to come to fruition.

As is so often the case with private finance spin-offs, the planning and procurement of local BSF programmes was taking years to come to fruition and the scheme was well behind schedule as a result. Costs were rising, although this was due to the increased scope of the scheme and inflation of building material costs rather than overrunning building work.

Neither report called for the BSF programme to be axed.

So where does this leave us now? There are two immediate conclusions:

  1. the evidence suggests that most of the delays and costs were racked up in procurement, rather than during building work
  2. many of the school projects that have been cancelled were right at the end of the procurement phase

Gove has said that where BSF schemes had chosen a preferred bidder, the one or two ‘sample schools’ to be developed first may still go ahead. Most if not all of the other schools in these schemes will be cancelled.

Take Oldham. The local BSF scheme had been in planning since the end of 2007. A preferred bidder was chosen last month. The long, expensive and bureaucratic procurement process was virtually over – what waste exists in the BSF system had been and gone. Work was nearly ready to start.

And now, Gove’s decision means that only two sample schools and – inevitably – three proposed academies have a chance of going ahead. Eight school projects have been ditched.

Look at those parliamentary reports – the expense was in planning and procurement. Oldham had pretty much got that out of the way. Now its investment is a write-off, to enable Gove’s grandstanding.

This is the logic of the government’s slashernomics. In order to be seen to cut as much as possible, as fast as possible, the government ensures that even more money is wasted.

By scrapping projects that had reached preferred bidder stage, the government writes off considerable time and investment from local authorities and opens itself to possible legal action over cancelled contracts.

Rather than scaling down the national BSF programme, simplifying planning and procurement and ditching the PFI garb, the government has (as a colleague who covers BSF deals puts it) caused maximum damage for minimum gain.

What most infuriates taxpayers is when they don’t see an end product for their money. BSF was not perfect, but it gave them an end product – new and refurbished school buildings. The government has now guaranteed that the taxpayer gets absolutely nothing in return for the money it has already spent.

If this is the new politics, the education secretary needs to go back to school.

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