Take a Mary Baker Schools Mix

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An article in Local Government Lawyer [LGL] at the end of last week reports on a review of capital investment in schools that has criticised the system as "not fit for purpose” and suggested that the public sector had consistently failed to get the value it should have done out of the Building Schools for the Future [BSF] programme.   Indeed!   The report dwells on this and provides much evidence of BSF's problems.

The BSF review report was written by Sebastian James, a Dixons director.  The LGL piece lists a long catalogue of problems highlighted by James who says that, not matter how people tried, the system was always too much for them.   Four issues from the reported highlighted by LGL are:

  • The capital allocation process was “complex, time consuming, expensive and opaque”
  • The design and procurement process for BSF was not designed to create either high and consistent quality or low cost.  “Procurement starts with a sum of money rather than with a specification, designs are far too bespoke, and there is no evidence of an effective way of learning from mistakes (or successes).”
  • A lack of expertise on the client side “meant that there was little opportunity to improve building methods in order to lower costs over time, especially for very large and complex BSF projects”.
  • Devolved funding processes did not deliver efficiently the objectives that they were established to achieve.  Funds were diverted to those adept at winning bids rather than those most in need.

All this is very believable.

The overall aim of the Review was to ensure that future capital investment will provide good value for money and strongly support the Government’s ambitions to reduce the deficit, raise standards, tackle disadvantage, address building condition and meet the requirement for school places resulting from an increase in the birth rate.  Given this, James's main recommendations are unsurprising, perhaps.  Two stand out for me and have inspired the title of this posting:

iii.  New buildings should be based on a clear set of standardised drawings and specifications that will incorporate the latest thinking on educational requirements and the bulk of regulatory needs.  This will allow for continuous learning to improve quality and reduce cost.  Currently the bulk of new schools are designed from scratch with significant negative consequences on time, cost and quality.

iv.  There must be a single, strong, expert, intelligent ‘client’ acting for the public sector in its relationships with the construction industry and responsible for both the design and the delivery of larger projects.  This body must be accountable for the delivery of buildings on time and to the right budget and quality standards.  This is a philosophical shift in approach as it would mean that the Department for Education will deliver not money, but rather a building to meet local needs.  Currently, the Department for Education supplies money to the Responsible Body and the principal accountability for delivery lies with them.

So, the (wo)man in Whitehall is to know best once again.  All this seems quite at odds with the government's localism agenda and it remains to be seen how Mr Gove will react.  It seems to me to be a huge and touching leap of faith that student and community needs can be met in this way, both to standard and price.  More likely "best value" schools will be built which never quite do what it says on the tin – just like all those cake mixes whose packaging flatter to deceive despite the eating experience they promise.  The is a mention of sustainability in the report, but it's hardly a fulsome one:  Bureaucrats 1  Architects 0.

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