Building Schools for the Future (BSF), which was the largest capital investment in education for 50 years, has been unceremoniously scrapped by the Conservative-Liberal Coalition. The programme, which prioritised areas of social and educational need, aimed to improve teaching and learning environments for pupils throughout England.
In 2008 the government announced that Southampton City Council would be offered BSF funding ahead of schedule. This not only reflected the urgent need for refurbishment or rebuilding among some Southampton schools but also that funding in Southampton would benefit the wider community.
Southampton’s BSF bid, launched during the short lived Lib-Lab Council pact, stressed that the funding was ‘not just about school building, but about the wider positive impact that schools can have’. The rebuilding would have created community hubs: ‘that include community services and access to life long learning’. For instance, in Freemantle the former Civil Service Sports Ground was to be bought back for the public.
The £200m building programme, which has all been scrapped, aimed to ‘close the education gap between Southampton and other parts of the country’. Sholing Technology College was one school set to be rebuilt. The comprehensive was built in 1939 and, despite vastly increasing its intake, has never seen a major renovation. The Southern Daily Echo described one classroom where ‘the paint is peeling and the brickwork crumbling’. Since 2008, when the school was guaranteed funding, the intake has again increased and long-term reorganisation – including changing to mixed sex status – has been planned. With this funding suddenly withdrawn it is unclear how the school will fulfil their longstanding organisational commitment and how the education of pupils will be protected.
BSF would have benefited thousands of school children throughout Southampton. The programme would have seen more than half of the city’s secondary schools rebuilt or refurbished. Plans to rebuild Chamberlayne College, St. George’s, Sholing Technology College, Bitterne Park and Upper Shirley High have been scrapped. Three more schools, which were due to have new IT facilities: Cantell, Redbridge and Woodlands, will also lose out. The scheme would have provided hundreds of jobs for builders, support workers and so-called bureaucrats, these have now been lost.
Parents, teachers and pupils will be surprised that the scheme is being cut despite a pre-election promise from David Cameron that the rebuilding in Southampton would go ahead. What is more worrying is the ideological delight with which the coalition seem to be making this cut. Rather than citing purely financial reasons, education secretary Michael Gove told the House of Commons that BSF should be scrapped because it was an ‘inflexible and needlessly complex programme’. The Lib-Dem leader of Portsmouth City Council agreed; he told BBC Hampshire that the scheme was ‘brilliant for consultants, not so good for schools’.
In fact, none of the head teachers will support the myth that this was an overly bureaucratic scheme. In Sholing the pupils were able to get involved in the planning process ‘carrying out surveys and working on the designs’.
It is perplexing that the coalition would cut a scheme that could potentially offer so much to local residents. The performing arts space that will no longer be built at Bitterne Park could have served the community for generations. It is little consolation to the children who will lose out that the coalition might still deliver funding for the city’s academies. Indeed, it appears that investment in Southampton’s educational future has been abandoned in order to pay for the coalition’s obsession with business backed “free schools”.
As pupils break up for summer their educational future is uncertain. Many parents will ask if the coalition really had no option but to break their promise to thousands of Southampton pupils. As David Cameron peddles his ‘Big Society’ others will wonder if a single Cabinet minister is facing an anxious summer: hoping that the future of their child’s school will be secure, or reeling from the disappointment that once again their children will be taught among the peeling paint and crumbling walls.
The problem, as Southampton Councillor Matt Stevens stated, is that the Conservatives ‘have never really understood the word community or how important schools are in delivering a healthy and sustainable society’. It is now the job of parents, teachers, pupils and the wider community to make them understand.