Monday, 9 July 2012

Michael Gove's cuts 'leave schools not fit for purpose'

In the last 6 months I've visited a fair few secondary schools, either through supply teaching or for job interviews. One thing that's struck me is how wildly the quality of facilities diverge. Some schools are shiny and new, others feel like a leap back in time to my own schooldays (class of '95) - while still others hover between the two, following a partial re-build or because they're midway through construction.

The BSF programme was, famously, one of the first areas of public spending to be axed or savagely cut by the in-coming coalition government in 2010. As The Independent notes:

'This year nearly 500 fewer schools will be refurbished than under the previous Labour government's Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme – 252 instead of 735. The axeing of the £55bn BSF programme, which would have seen every secondary school either rebuilt or refurbished over time, was one of the first victims of the Coalition's cuts.'

Whatever criticisms you make of the last Labour government - and I spent 13 years opposing a wide range of its policies - there really was a big increase in investment in the core areas of health and education. This was accompanied by a set of regressive policies which boosted marketisation and centralisation (and let's not forget the introduction of tuition fees, which proved a turning point in the history of higher education) but it was still an achievement of note.

The BSF programme was arguably the single most positive and important policy development in schooling for some years. A genuinely ambitious enterprise, it set out to transform the physical environment in which so many young people learn. It hasn't been perfect. Many teachers have criticisms of how too many of these schools have been designed by people with little understanding of day-to-day realities. And it is true that great things can be achieved without the best new facilities.

Nonetheless, the large-scale overhaul of school buildings was widely welcomed as a necessary investment. My own experience is that good, modern facilities do matter. At the very least they impact on staff morale and student pride; at best they make a serious contribution to what goes on in a school, opening up new opportunities.

The transition period between dilapidated old buildings and new first-class buildings can be a difficult upheaval - my own experience of teaching lessons in competition with noisy diggers outside my window was mild compared with some stories I've heard - but it's invariably worth it. I've recently been teaching a couple of days a week in a superb school which benefits from both a completely new building - which feels entirely different (in the best possible sense) to old-fashioned school environments - and a refurbished old block that will be 'fit for purpose' for many years.

But hundreds of schools haven't received - and still aren't going to receive - similar funding. The Independent's new report documents the disillusionment which has followed the scrapping of many planned re-building projects. It reports:

'Of 687 headteachers questioned in a survey for The Key, an independent advice service for schools, 270 said their buildings were not "fit for purpose". They added that they had suffered cuts of up to 75 per cent in their capital spending programmes for buildings and maintenance.'

There are many reasons to detest Michael Gove and what he is doing to education (in a staffroom recently I saw a poster for a teaching union which uses Gove's image as a recruiting technique - 'one reason to join the union'). The Tory assault on education is above all ideological - it's about increasing competition and private sector involvement, imposing a 'traditional' curriculum and pedagogy, enhancing powers for centralised government (under the guise of 'autonomy for schools').

This ideological attack, however, is complemented by a crudely economic drive to cut spending on education. The slashing of much-needed funds for new school buildings is - like the erosion of teacher pensions or the massive rises in student fees for university - an instance of unnecessary cuts to the investment we make in our collective future. It is essential that we demand schools which are fit for millions of children growing up in the 21st century.

Read the Independent's report here.

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