Editorial - Gove's BSF chop was mishandled, not a mistake

16th July 2010 at 01:00
While affected schools are right to feel angry, the minister's decision is understandable

Watching new ministers unveil fresh policies is a bit like observing sex-deprived teenagers grapple with love and literature. The intentions are clear, the idea startling, but the execution leaves something to be desired, as numerous published exam howlers demonstrate: "Long separated by cruel fate, the star-crossed lovers raced across the grassy field toward each other like two freight trains, one having left York at 6.36pm travelling at 55mph, the other from Peterborough at 4.19pm at a speed of 35mph."

Recent ministerial statements on school construction have been as breathless and as off-key as GCSE pupils on romance: "Far from using the boom years to build the new Jerusalem, the last government only managed to fix 3 per cent of roofs while the sun was shining"; "Her hair glistened in the rain like nose hair after a sneeze"; "The whole way we build schools needs radical reform ..."; "He was deeply in love. When she spoke, he thought he heard bells, as if she were a dustcart reversing."

Labour's generous Building Schools for the Future (BSF) is a tempting target for a Government saddled with debt. The tender process was ruinously expensive, the bureaucracy Byzantine, and the savings from axing it are potentially enormous. It is low-hanging fruit and budgetary winter is around the corner.

Unfortunately for Michael Gove, his drive to terminate BSF ended in a Commons car crash, like many an English essay. He was forced to apologise for getting his facts wrong and including condemned projects among the reprieved. Those schools and councils that have had their hopes dashed and their coffers depleted on wasted plans are furious. The legal redress they are seeking could cost the Government millions (see pages 6-7). And the Opposition, scenting an easy political victory and buttressed by cold local fury, has made the most of Mr Gove's embarrassment.

But it would be a mistake for shadow ministers to get too cocky about their recent performances. Before the election they admitted capital expenditure, presumably including schools, would have to be slashed. Indeed, previous Labour governments have axed school construction in hard times. It beggars belief that, faced with Mr Gove's dilemma, they too wouldn't have braved the protests and cut. New buildings are harder to justify than small class sizes and well-trained staff.

Mr Gove has made a hash of delivering his policy and schools that had been banking on improvements are right to feel aggrieved. But he has been brave pressing a course that was bound to infuriate many in his own party and right to cancel BSF. Money is tight and buildings are not as vital as pupils or staff. Despite the presentational glitches and local disappointments, many in the profession will accept Mr Gove's logic, or as he almost certainly wouldn't put it: "She grew on him like she was a colony of E.coli and he was room-temperature British beef."

Gerard Kelly, Editor; E: gerard.kelly@tes.co.uk.

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