Post-BSF future looks bleak

11 Jul 2014 - Viewpoint

By Yasmin Shariff 11th July 2014 AJ

Sebastian James, author of the James Review, offered little clarity at the IOC Conference on how the government will implement his report’s recommendations for new schools, says Yasmin Shariff.

The City & Financial conference on how to implement the James Review may have been premature, considering the government has still not made its conclusions on the report, published 8 April. If their delayed response is anything to go by, the future of investment in education looks bleak.

The review team included former minister of construction John Egan; Kevin Grace, Tesco’s property services director; and former vice-chancellor of Oxford University, John Hood. At best the review managing big estates and office blocks well, but they have little experience of nurturing learning nor any track record of how to procure school buildings efficiently and effectively.

James outlined the obvious failing of BSF: it was an arduous process, with 143 steps to get money to schools and about nine different groups responsible for its allocation. He said that the BSF buildings cost too much and that it was cheaper to build schools in Denmark and Germany, although he offered no analysis or figures to explain why the Continent is cheaper when labour prices are much higher.

No single BSF project was analysed to demonstrate what worked or failed with only a diagramme showing how quality varied. Tim Byles, former chief executive of Partnerships for Schools, remarked that there had been 18 reviews in the four and half years on BSF and there was no shortage of examples from which to learn lessons. Yet it seemed the James review considered BSF a dirty word, that it was too complex, too costly and too difficult.

Transformational design was demonized, while templates and identikit options were idolized. Only a pilot project, Campsmount Technology College by CPMG, phoenix-like, arose from its ashes. Yet it was anything but a pilot.

Campsmount is bespoke and site-specific and there is no evidence that it piloted any savings. It did not have a template design and there was no central intelligent client body helping the school.

James highlighted that the focus of government policy will be 70-80 percent refurbishment without contrasting with new build costs. The review estimates backlog of repairs and maintenance to be from £8 billion to £22 billion. It will be difficult, if not possible to work out what needs to be done, because there has been little accountability or monitoring.

There are 17 pot of money for work such as toilet refurbishments and kitchen replacement. This means those who fill out forms get the money rather that those who need it most.

While the government deliberates its response, we are sitting on a population time bomb. The rising birth-rate has created a high demand of primary school places, which will hit the secondary sector in 2017.

The James review does not set out how to implement the changes, this being the responsibility of chief construction adviser, Paul Morrel. Let’s hope that those responsible to the review are able to work out a solution that overcomes prejudice against designers yet cuts out the excess of BSF. As head teacher Alan Sprakes, says: Ultimately it is about our young people. They will shape the destiny of our nation. It is doomed to fail if it is not.

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