Cuts jeopardise plan to rebuild nation's schools

1st May 2009 at 01:00
Tightened public purse strings put transformation of secondaries in doubt

The government's pound;55 billion plan to rebuild or refurbish every secondary school in England looks set to be severely pared back - or killed off - as part of the imminent cuts in public spending.

The Building Schools for the Future (BSF) scheme, which aims to transform schools that are falling into disrepair, has been a cornerstone of Labour's education policy since 2002.

The initiative has been allocated pound;9.3 billion up to 2011, but after Chancellor Alistair Darling's Budget last week, experts have warned that the future of the scheme beyond that date looks extremely doubtful.

According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, national expenditure - building projects including schools, motorways and hospitals - will be halved from 2009-10 levels by 2013-14. This equates to spending being slashed from pound;44bn this year to pound;22bn in 2013.

Gemma Tetlow of the institute said: "Although we do not know exactly where the cuts will take place, with that size of cut in investment, many areas will see substantially lower investment by 2013-14 than they will this year."

School building work is expected to continue until the general election, which will take place by the end of next May, but after that the future looks bleak for the BSF initiative.

A National Audit Office report published in February said the overall cost of the programme had risen from pound;45bn to between pound;52bn and pound;55bn. It said if the scheme were to hit its original target of finishing every secondary school by 2020, it would need to build 200 schools every year at a cost of between pound;3.4bn and pound;3.7bn a year.

For that reason, leading construction economist Noble Francis gave a stark warning that he expected the programme to "drift away".

Mr Francis said: "In the short term, BSF has a future, but it is in the medium term where there are serious problems. They won't stop any school building halfway through, but they are going to make sure very few - if any - new schools will be built. After that, you would expect the programme to drift away. I would be very surprised to see the 2020 target still there in five years' time."

It is rumoured that should the Tories gain office next year, they would make greater cuts in public spending rather than raise taxes to repay the country's extensive debts.

John Howson, an education recruitment expert employed by The TES's holding company, said he expected BSF to be one of the first areas of capital expenditure hit.

"BSF is an obvious one to be axed," he said. "If the construction industry in the private sector is still very weak, BSF will be kept on to keep the construction industry going. But if you need to get rid of this huge debt, you are not going to keep building schools."

Michael Gove, shadow schools secretary, said the "appalling" public debt figures in the Budget "undermine all government promises and forecasts about spending".

Partnerships for Schools, the agency that runs the BSF scheme, admitted that funding in the medium term was uncertain.

"BSF remains the Government's flagship programme for transforming the secondary school estate," a spokesman said. "For the next phase of BSF, the Department for Children, Schools and Families has already issued an indicative priority list of local authorities and we are working closely with a number of these to help them prepare for BSF.

"However, it will not be possible to make an announcement about the launch of new projects until the assessment of local authorities' readiness has been completed; Pounds 9.3bn has been committed for the current spending review period and the Budget does not change this.

"Decisions about future spending review periods are still to be taken and will be done in the usual way."

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