Despite all the lip service paid to education during this election campaign, there are two important school policies that none of the main parties have wanted to tackle openly.
Let’s start with Building Schools for the Future (BSF), the secondary schools rebuilding programme that the government launched with much fanfare in 2004. ’Twas a noble aim, to rebuild or refurbish all English secondary schools, but the job has been handled by a quango called Partnerships for Schools (PfS). It’s poorly structured and wasteful, with grand aims that are likely to disappoint.
I know this because last year I researched and wrote a comprehensive report about BSF for the think tank Policy Exchange, interviewing around 50 of the major players. A number of them made serious allegations about the culture within PfS, in particular the quango’s attitude towards local authorities. Yet the programme spluttered on regardless, and remains a jewel in Labour’s crown, much mentioned in its manifesto.
Yet the Conservative and Liberal Democrat manifestos don’t mention it once either. Why have both of them have been so unforthcoming about its fate? After all, schools are expecting the money, and many local authorities have given up repairing school buildings while they wait for it, meaning that pupils are learning in very poor conditions. Whatever I think about the programme–and I think it spends too much time rehearsing grand ideas, and not enough concentrating on building decent schools–voters (and schools) should be told what’s going to happen here.
And then there’s the “Swedish” free schools policy, much loved by the Conservatives and trumpeted as increasing parental choice. But what if parents don’t want to run their own schools? James Crabtree and I wrote about this in Prospect last year, and commissioned a MORI poll for the article, asking parents if they would be interested in doing so. Only 2 per cent said they would jump at the chance, although 43 per cent said they might do. But what parents liked best was someone else doing it. Who? Well, er… teachers, or even those reliable old local authorities! Forty per cent favoured the latter group, and 33 per cent the former.
The truth is, many parents just don’t have time to pop in and run a school at lunchtime when they are holding down a job. Isn’t that why we pay taxes?
So here are a few questions that need answers:
1. What are all the parties going to do about the inefficiencies and waste in the Building Schools for the Future programme?
2. Why is so much power in education being vested in an unaccountable quango?
3. Why is BSF funding being ring-fenced when other, more valuable projects may well fall to the axe?
4. And, for the, Conservatives: what if the wrong sort of parents (“progressive” well-to-do mums, for example, who might well irk the traditionalists) want to run schools and get the state to pay for them?
5. And what if parents aren’t really very good at running schools? Will someone be able to fire them?
6. And finally, what if not enough parents come forward?