Opinion: BSF is dead – thank goodness‏

With the Conference season now upon us and with Labour preparing to crown their new Leader it seems appropriate that we lay to rest the myth that BSF (Building Schools for the Future) was some great effective scheme. In fact it was a bureaucratic joke with too few beneficiaries and huge expensive processes. The Liberal Democrat Conference is a good chance to cheer and toast the end of BSF and focus on education and pupils and real improvements.

It was 2005 and the local elections in London were scheduled for 2006. It was clear, we were clear, parents were clear, that there was a need for additional secondary school places in north west London in the Borough of Camden. The case for more places in the south of the Borough was also compelling – the campaign for a school ‘south of the Euston Road’ was pretty noisy and indeed compelling. And yet Camden Council had got itself to a place whereby it looked inactive, unable to articulate a more pro-active vision and lacking the political leadership to secure a new school.

I remember very clearly the conversation in Cllr Keith Moffitt’s front room in West Hampstead about the need for a new school. We had obtained the figures from the Council and sure enough it was NW6 (Kilburn and West Hampstead) where the numerical need was greatest and so we looked at our emerging manifesto. Working with Keith as Group leader and Cllr John Bryant, a very experienced education professional, we hammered out a form of words that pledged to build a new school for the north west of the Borough. We were aware that location and sites were in short supply but we were clear that we needed to articulate the vision. It was also clear that funding was in very short supply and that the Labour Government was fixated on setting up academies. So we resolved to call for a new school and look to secure a public sector partner for an academy, if that was the route we would be forced down.

We duly came out of the election in 2006 as the largest party and in the coalition agreement secured the commitment to a new school. But then entering stage left came BSF: a requirement for the Borough to lay aside the clarity of a new school for north west Camden and additional places at least for south of the Euston Road and instead wrap up all schools in an all-encompassing programme of renewal.

The effect was a scale of bureaucracy and planning that can only be described as byzantine – but in fact stupid, excessive and unnecessary seems more appropriate. Add to that the vested interests of Labour activists, Unions and the suddenly pro-active Anti-Academy Alliance. All too often this was articulated by Fiona Millar and she consistently opposed the plan to increase educational capacity in the area unless it was delivered in her terms, against the dictat of her Government and Party! The effect has been four years later that we have a vision, an agreed school, a site, planning permission, a public sector partner in University College London (UCL) and not a single brick laid.

Four years of education have passed, millions have been spent preparing and re-drafting – consultants have done well out of this time-lag – and yet still month by month and year by year too many children of north west Camden don’t have access to a local secondary school that they can easily walk to.

Whatever the framework for education and the respective merits and de-merits of types of governance arrangements there has to be a better, quicker and more effective process for determining who wants to enhance their educational provision and enabling them to do it.

I’m very clear that BSF was a failed bureaucracy and I’m cheering its demise. Now I want the local children in my area to get their new school – it’s in sight, but we’ve been too long waiting. And frankly Labour have failed to apologise either for the delay, the obstruction or the unnecessary costs locally and nationally from their Government.

Ed Fordham is the parliamentary campaigner for Hampstead and Kilburn and has worked at the Local Government Association for the last 4 years.

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6 Comments

  • I am not sufficiently familiar with BSF to comment on its merits or lack of merits, however in terms of the end result to my eyes the entire education policy of the previous Labour government was a mess and a failure. Unfortunately, I have heard nothing from the current coalition government to indicate that its policies will be any better. Quite the opposite in fact. In particular, I find all the talk of ‘academies’ and ‘private schools’ very worrying – it is all so needlessly divisive and arbitrary. I am especially worried about faith schools – an out-dated and particularly stupid notion that should be completely removed from the system.

    The government should focus on quality of teaching, not providing ‘choice’, which is often illusory. The vast majority of parents just want a good quality LOCAL school for their children to attend along with their children’s established friends, not for their children to be bussed miles across a city or to an adjoining town in order to attend a ‘specialised school’ or one with supposedly higher-quality teaching. All this fragmentation of the system is a divisive waste of resources.

  • I can’t agree with your view on BSF. However, I do agree that the council need to stand up and apologise and at the very least, explain to us parents why they have put off opening UCL Academy for another year.

    I have asked, but so far, have not had a single reply from the council or the UCL.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 16th Sep '10 - 2:24pm

    “I’m very clear that BSF was a failed bureaucracy and I’m cheering its demise.”

    As in so many cases, it would be one thing if the party had been saying this before the election, but of course it wasn’t.

    Here’s a report from January about Nick Clegg “taking time out of his busy schedule” to meet some local school leaders who were concerned that they hadn’t got BSF funding. One local school had “been repeatedly knocked back for BSF in favour of other more deprived local authorities.” They said the cost of maintaining the fabric of their existing school buildings was a big drain on their resources.

    This was Clegg’s response:
    “He said BSF was a good scheme in principle but said he had major doubts about how it was working in practice in some areas.”
    http://caldervalleylibdems.org.uk/2010/01/nick-clegg-in-discussions-on-local-high-schools/

    I dare say that in the context of that article, concerned parents would have read the “major doubts” as support for their view that their school had been unfairly deprived of funding – not as an implication that Clegg wanted to axe the whole programme.

  • Tony Greaves 16th Sep '10 - 3:05pm

    There are two quite separate issues. One is the BSF system which was as Ed describes. An expensive bureaucratic nightmare. The other is funding of new schools and school improvements – how much and where. There is an established system for this (and I think BSF was only about a third of the total anyway – this % may be wrong but not a majority). The danger is that investment in schools will now collapse.

    Academies are a separate issue altogether.

    Tony Greaves

  • Andrew Suffield 16th Sep '10 - 11:25pm

    Clegg wanted to axe the whole programme

    and replace it with spending money on actual schools instead of useless bureaucracy and unnecessary buildings

    Killing BSF is a no-brainer once you understand how much of a train wreck it was. It’s not like Clegg’s spending the money on having his moat cleaned instead, it’s going towards doing things in schools which are actually useful.

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