Education & Family

Follow the money on school building projects

Blair launching BSF
Image caption Tony Blair launched the massive school re-building project in 2004

In any edgy political thriller there's always a point when someone says conspiratorially: "Follow the money."

It's the theory that if you follow the cash you'll find what's really happening.

And the withdrawal of money from the £55bn flagship Building Schools for the Future shows how much has changed since the Conservatives and Liberal Democracts took over the education department.

The project to rebuild England's schools was on an epic scale.

It would open more new schools than at any time since the Victorians - applying the levels of cash and confidence that the Victorians brought to building railways and public buildings.

This was building schools for social regeneration, pouring public money into areas that had suffered from generations of educational neglect.

Frustrated by the slowness of improvements to standards, Tony Blair's boom-years' approach was to buy progress. If the schools were not working, then knock them down and start again.

Changing tracks

There were critics from the outset who claimed it was also wasting money on an epic scale, with too much red-tape and too few strictures on spending. It wasn't so much a new railway as a gravy train.

Image caption New buildings challenged the idea of what a school should look like

In cancelling more than 700 school building projects, Education Secretary Michael Gove attacked the "pointless bureaucracy".

But regardless of the efficiency of the administration of the project, the cancellation marks a major change in philosophy.

Even before the financial clampdown, the Conservatives wanted to channel the river of money away from expensive new buildings and use it to irrigate its own favourite project - free schools.

Instead of big-ticket landmark schools, the Conservatives wanted to encourage a proliferation of small and diverse schools, run by community groups, opening up on a street corner rather than taking over the block.

And in terms of following the money, it is this philosophy that is now in the ascendancy.

Even though this will be presented as a coalition agreement - the way the money is being spent is much closer to the Conservatives' policy.

Free schools

The new spending priorities put an emphasis on generating places for these "new providers" and to fund the establishment of new schools.

It's about providing the tools rather than putting up the building.

Sebastian James, an Oxford contemporary of David Cameron who will lead the review on future capital spending, is from the private sector. His previous experience of changing buildings, according to the Department for Education, was with Currys.

While Building Schools for the Future was about state intervention, the new approach is about the state withdrawing control.

What Labour presented as a golden era, the Conservatives now reject as an example of profligacy at the taxpayers' expense.

Labour made the school re-building project a defining symbol. They had entered office when head teachers were complaining about leaking roofs - and the shiny new buildings were yardsticks of what they had achieved.

And in cancelling much of the remaining project, the new government is making its own symbolic statement of intent.

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