Why mortar is still not going where it oughta

9th March 2012 at 00:00
The Priority School Building Programme is six months behind

When the newly installed education secretary, Michael Gove, cancelled Labour's ambitious Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme in the summer of 2010, he dashed the hopes of hundreds of schools in real need of new buildings.

And those hopes are unlikely to be raised any time soon: the government's stop-gap rebuilding scheme, the Priority School Building Programme, is running half a year behind schedule.

The Department for Education originally set a deadline of October last year for schools to express an interest, with the announcement of the first tranche of successful schools expected by December. But according to sources close to the #163;2 billion scheme, the DfE's capital arm, Partnerships for Schools, was overwhelmed by requests - the programme was six times oversubscribed.

In January, Mr Gove admitted to the Commons that the programme was running late. The minister told MPs that final decisions on each school in the scheme would not be made until "at least next month". However, it appears that Mr Gove's estimate was overly optimistic: any announcement on the Priority School Building Programme will not be made until after the local and mayoral elections in May, but will most likely take place in June.

The six-month delay will come as a bitter disappointment to schools in dire need of new and refurbished buildings. Cottingham High School in Yorkshire is one that desperately needs help: part of its roof fell down more than a year ago and millions of pounds worth of repairs are required.

"It is disappointing," headteacher Elizabeth Logan said. "We would like a new building tomorrow, we are that desperate, but if we have to wait, we have to wait.

"My staff have been fighting for new buildings since BSF and they were very disappointed when that was cancelled. I think they will believe they have a new building only when they see it."

This month's Budget has been cited as one reason for the hold-up; pressure from the Treasury was another.

Critics have jumped on the problems. Stephen Twigg, Labour's shadow education secretary, said parents would be frustrated by the delays because there was an "urgent need" for more school places, particularly in the primary sector.

"After the chaotic abandonment of the programme to rebuild all secondary schools in England, the government's Priority School Building Programme appears to be in chaos," Mr Twigg said. "The government should bring forward investment projects such as new school buildings, which will also create building jobs."

By cancelling BSF in 2010, Mr Gove sparked national outrage, with a number of local authorities forcing a judicial review. A subsequent report into Labour's school rebuilding programme by Sebastian James, head of the Dixons Group, said that the scheme had wasted billions.

But the DfE said the delay to its smaller replacement scheme was down to civil servants ensuring that the Priority School Building Programme was "fair and rigorous".

"We understand the high level of interest in this programme, but it's really important that this work is not rushed and we will make an announcement in due course," a spokesperson said.

And there are some who support this stance. One group that advocates better school design called on the government to take its time. Nusrat Faizullah, chief executive of the British Council for School Environments, said the government needed to be sure of which schools were in greatest need.

"The delays are frustrating," Ms Faizullah said. "But we must have greater scrutiny over what is needed, particularly if we consider that we are dealing with less resources."

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