BSF was a #163;55bn programme, but cash wasn't 'sloshing around'
When Tim Byles' phone rang in 2006 about a job rebuilding every secondary school in the country, he thought it sounded like "an interesting challenge".
Nearly five years later, these words do not seem to do justice to an initiative that was criticised from every corner, dogged with delays, branded as wasteful and covered in red tape.
And so it is worth noting that, despite the job's difficulties, Mr Byles has only now decided to move away from what he describes as the "spotlight".
He stepped down last week as chief executive of Partnerships for Schools (PfS), the agency responsible for delivering the enormous Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme.
The #163;55 billion BSF initiative was arguably the most ambitious education policy that the Labour government implemented. By rebuilding or refurbishing more than 3,500 schools, Labour hoped to inject what it called "educational transformation" into the country's poorest communities.
At the time, the rationale behind the vast rebuilding scheme was lauded, but after an atrocious start, it was not long before BSF was accused of wasting taxpayers' cash.
By the time Mr Byles, chief executive of Norfolk County Council, was approached to lead the programme it was careering off course. If he did not know what he was letting himself in for, it did not take him long to find out.
"When I arrived, just one deal had been done - in Bristol," says Mr Byles. "No schools were open and the objective was to get BSF back on track and make sure it was delivering the government's objectives.
"We had to make sure we were providing good value for money. We had to satisfy the (Commons) public accounts committee, the National Audit Office and myriad external reviews (18 in his four -and-a-half-years). And doing all of that in the spotlight creates its own ..." he pauses before choosing his word, "... discipline," he adds with a smile.
The task in front of Mr Byles quickly became bigger as ministers decided to hand PfS control of delivering the academies programme.
The decision meant Monday morning meetings with then schools minister Lord Adonis - and 4am starts as Mr Byles was commuting from Norfolk at the time.
The move also saw the overall budget for BSF swell from #163;45 billion to #163;55 billion. To many, the jump in costs was proof of further mismanagement, something that clearly still rankles with Mr Byles.
"It was no small task to deliver a #163;55 billion programme. And it was #163;55 billion because of the additional responsibilities we had been given for academies and special educational needs schools - it was not an overspend, as some people unkindly suggested," he says.
This statement makes it clear that Mr Byles is in no doubt about his performance as chief executive of PfS. If there was waste, it wasn't on his watch. If people had a problem with the programme itself, that was a matter to take up with the policy-makers.
One of the biggest criticisms of BSF was that its focus on the most deprived areas meant some schools were being refurbished or even completely rebuilt when this was not needed.
Meanwhile, other schools in less disadvantaged communities were left crumbling, with leaking roofs and busted boilers.
Mr Byles is somewhat exasperated with having to explain his stance again.
"It is not my job as the head of a delivery agency to disagree with the government's policies," he says. "It is my job to implement it to the best of my ability.
"The government's priorities were very clear - the most deprived areas. Let's change whole communities and bring together education and other investment to manage wholesale regeneration.
"Condition was a factor, but it wasn't the overriding factor. I mean, I can come forward with suggestions to do things better, but the core policy position was the deal: 'come and sort out BSF and these are our priorities', not 'come and change our priorities'."
Nonetheless, the priorities were about to change. With the economic downturn and a looming general election, scrutiny of the vast project became even more acute.
Accusations, particularly from the Conservatives, began to fly that the programme was inherently wasteful. Graham Stuart MP, now chair of the Commons education select committee, would come to describe the programme as "an orgy of spending ... leaving behind a vast number of leaking roofs and poor buildings because so much has been spent on consultants and Ceausescu-esque monuments to political vanity".
But while Mr Byles accepts there was waste in the system, he refuses to believe that any more could have been done to reduce spending while meeting the Labour government's priorities.
"Money was not sloshing around," he says. "Let's look at the context: what we had in early 2006 was an early programme of academies, deliberately designed with iconic, transformational designs, some of them costing a great deal of money - #163;50, #163;60, #163;70 million.
"What I did was get that same quality of academies down by 30 per cent. I had academies at the same level of investment as other community schools, with the objective of helping change the whole character of an area without (building) gold-plated monuments to people's fancies."
And it is testament to the work Mr Byles did while running the agency that when Michael Gove took his seat as education secretary the body survived.
BSF, however, did not. Mr Gove said the project had been "characterised by massive overspends, tragic delays, botched construction projects and needless bureaucracy".
It might be assumed that the man overseeing the programme would soon be looking for a new job, but Mr Gove realised the former Norfolk council chief executive's worth.
When Sebastian James, group operations director for electrical retailer Dixons, was commissioned by Mr Gove to carry out an independent review of schools' capital spending, he took a similar view. He told the education secretary that those trying to administer the system had done their best, and that it was the system that was working against them.
Pre-election, the Conservatives made no secret of wanting to abolish arm's-length bodies such as PfS, so many were surprised that it has lasted as long as it has. But this is to change, as the body is expected to be axed next April.
Mr Byles is planning to set up a social enterprise organisation called Cornerstone. "The architecture of education, in my view, will be bringing together arm's-length bodies - such as PfS - inside (the Department) as an executive agency," he says. "That is a decision for the secretary of state to make.
"My interests are in making sure public services are delivered effectively between the public, private and third sectors. I believe I can best do that through establishing a private sector vehicle."
Mr Byles sees free schools as an area where his new venture could take hold, and he maintains that his relationship with the education secretary remains "excellent".
Sitting in his chair, with an open collar, Mr Byles looks relaxed - and there is also a sense of relief about him. He looks like a man happy to be stepping out of the spotlight.
1959: Born in Kent
Education and career
1970: Tunbridge Wells Grammar School
1977: University of Kent
1988: Appointed director of economic development at Kent County Council
1996: One of the youngest local authority chief executives at Norfolk County Council
2006: Chief executive, Partnerships for Schools
2006: Received CBE for services to local government
2011: Started own social enterprise called Cornerstone after stepping down from PfS
BSF IN BRIEF
By the time Tim Byles joined Partnership for Schools to oversee Labour's vast school-building programme, just one deal had been signed - with Bristol local authority - and not a single school had opened.
When Building Schools for the Future was cancelled by education secretary Michael Gove in July last year, 185 secondary schools had either been built or were in the process of being built.
But it took #163;5 billion of taxpayers' money to achieve that number, prompting Mr Gove to call time on the venture.
A further 700 schools have been promised a rebuild, but how that will be delivered has yet to be confirmed. Last month, Mr Gove gave the go-ahead for #163;800 million being used to build 71 new academies.