Education & Family

School buildings threaten to cast a long shadow

Save our schools rally
Image caption Protesters marched past the education department

Teachers usually complain about the volume of advice coming out of the Department for Education.

But for the Save Our Schools protest against scrapping the school renovation project, the advice was going in the other direction.

Teachers and parents marched past the Department for Education calling for a change of heart outside a building which, with no little irony, was itself being renovated.

But this rally in the London sunshine wasn't one of those rather synthetic political shouting matches.

With the safety jackets and children's voices, it was more of a school-trip crocodile than an old-style union demonstration.

But there was no doubting its sincerity, expressing the disappointment of communities which felt they had been promised something and then found it was taken away.

If anyone was peering out from inside the education department's headquarters they would have seen placards from middle-England, from places such as Norfolk, Hertfordshire and Essex.

Grassroots worries

What will trouble the coalition government is that this story is much bigger away from the think-tankery of the Westminster village.

It's an authentic grassroots issue with deep roots that spread across party lines, with local papers running their own campaigns.

Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have been voicing concerns, particularly at local level, in addition to protests from the Labour Party and teachers' organisations.

Schools, councils, parents and pupils have invested huge amounts of work in rebuilding plans and they were infuriated to see the project cancelled so abruptly.

People might put up with a lot - but take something away from their children and it touches the rawest of nerves.

And when so many promises in education can seem like smoke and mirrors, the prospect of new bricks and mortar seemed a much more tangible form of progress.

So it's likely that the coalition government will be working hard over the summer on a capital review that can be promoted as an improvement on Building Schools for the Future.

Second chance

The government has had to wrestle with the difficult sales job of both scrapping the current building plans, while holding out the offer of another review in its place.

And it will be very keen to send the message that some of the disappointed schools can still expect to receive funds for repairs and renovations.

But another batch of winners and losers could further aggravate the sense of grievance and spark another round of protests.

In terms of a sure-footed response, it makes it more difficult that the government is now a three-legged race.

The Conservatives have taken much of the criticism over the scrapping of rebuilding schools, while their Liberal Democrat partners have hardly rushed to the defence.

A senior Liberal Democrat MP Mike Hancock is supporting his own local rally opposing the cancellation of building plans, while the party's deputy leader, Simon Hughes, has publicly attacked the idea of funding new free schools at the expense of repairing existing schools.

The more that such in-fighting continues the more local campaigners will think there might be a way of overturning the bad news.

The end of term is approaching for schools. It remains to be seen whether the battle over rebuilding schools will be on the timetable again after the holidays.

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