James Review - the million dollar question remains "How will the limited pot of cash be divided up?"

Fiona Millar's picture
The James Review into school capital spending  was slipped out to very little fanfare yesterday, on the last day of term. I wonder why? It could be that the whole matter of school buildings is of little real interest to the media, but given the furore over the cancellation of BSF, you would have thought there would be more interest in what might follow it. Alternatively, maybe the government didn’t want to attract too much attention to the Review’s findings.

I had a strong sense of déjà vu, reading it. As a chair of governors, I spent almost three years, with colleagues from other local schools, wrestling with the byzantine bureaucracy put in place by the last Labour government to deliver BSF, only to have the money we were anticipating snatched from us at the 11th hour in July last year.

I would agree with some of James’ findings ; the previous system was overly bureaucratic, involved too many consultants, took too long and was made irredeemably frustrating , by the antics of the wholly misnamed delivery body Partnership for Schools. Partnership was in short supply in our relationship with this organisation. as this blog in today’s Telegraph by Neil O Brien Director of the Policy Exchange, flags up.

PfS main aim at every turn seemed to be to generate more work for itself, for its satellite consultancies, to empire build, to bully and patronise school governing bodies and local authorities. It is a mystery to me why this organisation is still involved in school capital procurement at all and, reading between the lines, looks set to be reinvented under a new name to manage the lions’ share of the next tranche of large scale procurement centrally on behalf of the government. Surely only a matter of time before what O Brien describes as PfS ‘mission creep’ rears its ugly head again.

PFS aside, James reads as if the authors were trying to do an impartial piece of work, with their hands tied by certain political constraints, not least Michael Gove's insistence, reported in last week’s FT, that the report should be used to trash BSF and Labour’s record to retrospectively justify what must still be the biggest own goal of his reign at the DFE.

However in spite of the disproportionately large amount of space given to analysing BSF, not all the Review’s criticisms are well justified. In one astonishing paragraph, the authors profess to being ‘troubled ‘ by the amount of involvement staff and pupils had been allowed to think about what their new schools might be like .This is quite extraordinary given all the rhetoric we hear about localism, the Big Society and community involvement. Expect to see these decisions taken centrally from now on.

The idea of using buildings to effect educational transformation’ is also sneered at, because it didn’t deliver a quick boost in exams results. But education is about more than just test and exam results. Many heads and pupils in post BSF buildings report an increased sense of self esteem in pupils, especially those from poor backgrounds and overcrowded homes, as they moved into purpose built modern buildings that became highly regarded and sought after by the local community. Even though the educational transformation process inevitably descended into yet another round of PfS box ticking exercises, it did force schools to think about what and how, they might want to teach in the future, and that was no bad thing either.

What we are left with post James will be very different; government will call the shots for big projects, there will be some locally devolved capital to schools and local authorities, but much less than was previously available and to be distributed via a ‘local investment plan’. A better estimate of local condition need will be required, schools will have to become smarter about their maintenance programmes and there will need to be consultation locally about how the pot is divvied up. The Review notes that this will lead to ‘tensions' between different institutions.

And there will be a two tier school estate. On one hand the 800 or so BSF new builds, gleaming new bespoke designs kitted out with state of the art ICT and the rest , built or refurbished under new slimmed down planning rules to a simplified and standardised design package. Think flat pack schools – I suppose we should expect nothing less from a Review group populated heavily by people who work in the commercial retail sector (Tesco, Dixons, Mothercare and WH Smith) whose day jobs involve putting up clone shops around the country.

Finally there will of course be a special category for creating ‘oversupply’ in ‘demand led’ schools (free schools to you and me). Money for these will be held centrally and handed out at the government’s discretion. It is unclear what how much of the total  DFE capital building budget will be devoted to this, or indeed how the decisions to spend it will be taken, but these really are the million dollar questions. A desire not to be probed on the answers may be one reason why yesterday’s publication was so muted.
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Laura McInerney's picture
Sat, 09/04/2011 - 17:37

Fiona - I agree with most of what you say here. The James Review is actually a fairly good report but it leaves a lot open about how much money is going to be available and how it will be spent. Honestly, I don't think there was a cover-up in terms of the date it was released but I do think the Department simply won't know how much money there will so there's no point making a fanfare when they can't answer the obvious questions.

On the issue of student/school involvement, I think that there's a comfortable middle ground that neither BSF nor the review have got quite right. Firstly, teachers and students are not architects and beyond minimal consultation it probably isn't important to involve everyone in a 5-year design process especially when teacher (and student) turnover is so quick.
That said, I have been horrified by some of the options suggested by BSF teams. Some of the room layouts we were given to choose from were pedagogically disasterous - anyone who had taught for a few months could see the issues a mile off - and yet these were being touted as possible classroom layouts.

If the James Review can achieve having a consultation group of teachers working on best practice classrooms based on classrooms that have already been built and are proven to work then that is better than years of consultation with teachers who might not know any better because all they have taught in are badly designed rooms.

Bob Harrison's picture
Sat, 09/04/2011 - 19:51

It is difficult to disagree with most of what you say Fiona and I find the cynical delay and release date an insult to the intelligence of all those governors,teachers and pupils affected.

I think you are a bit harsh on PfS given their brief was to "transform learning environments" rather than just "rebuild or remodel dilapidated schools.

The mindset and experience of the members comes from electronic/whitegoods retail,airports, and supermarkets. The dynamic of purchasing is very different to that of learning and socialisation and if my shopping/airport experiences are anything to go by a lot shorter!

This also goes someway to explain Sebastian James incredulity that "pupils should be involved in the design process". Otherwise supermarkets, retail chains and especially airports would be a lot more user friendly?

The real irony is that Djanogly City Academy and Mossbourne(often used as examples of new schools improving standards) were both designed by renowned architechts. As was Eton if I am correct?

My main concern,however,is the complete lack of understanding in the report abot the "learning futures" thinking which I was privileged to work with many BSF's for the National College.

The James recommendations do not address this at all and completely ignore the issue of digital,open,distance and blended learning and the "crisis of relevance" facing schools due to the digital expectations of the "net generation".

Even Dixons,Curry's Tesco and BAA have online don't they?

The irony in the recommendations for ICT will take the breath away from the 200+ BECTA staff currently looking for work,not to mention the £60m it cost to close them down! An act of political vandalism and vindictiveness that James now exposes in it's true light?

Laura McInerney's picture
Sun, 10/04/2011 - 07:41

Bob - those stores are all incredibly user-friendly. If they weren't then they would not be as successful as they are. Tesco, in particular, pay detail to the tiniest aspects of their stores to ensure that they are absolutely the best customer experience, e.g. temperature, lighting, smells, cleanliness.

One of the interesting things about stores versus schools is how often stores are re-branded and re-fitted. There is no point building a Dixons for 'the future' because they cannot tell what that future will be, but what Dixons does do is re-fit by cycle. This means that stores are fully updated on a regular basis.

One of the problems of BSF was that the schools tried to get around this problem by predicting future demand when that is impossible. What would be more innovative is a cycle of re-fitting in schools but I'm not sure we are quite at that advanced a stage just yet.

Fiona Millar's picture
Sun, 10/04/2011 - 10:35


Clearly other schools and Local Authorities may have had more positive experiences of PfS than we did although I thought Neil O Brien's comments in the Telegraph, below, chimed with my own experience. He wrote:

"There seemed to be some big problems with the quango in charge of the program too. As part of our investigation we talked to lots of people who’d had dealings with Partnerships for Schools (PfS) and few had anything positive to say about it.

"One described them as “marching round the country in their jackboots, telling local authorities what to do”. One highly placed director of a company with a good track record in winning BSF contracts, previously a very senior figure in local authority governance, commented: “PfS would not trust a local authority to procure a bag of paper clips. That’s quite insulting.” Many interviewees were concerned about the “mission creep” by PfS, as it took on more and more responsibility from the then Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF), with a number describing the body as “empire building”. What is more, we heard accusations of bullying from a number of local authorities and other well-placed sources. Not a pretty picture, all in all".

My particular bugbears were the endless not very impressive silent 'suits' who used to turn up at the meetings and contribute little ( paid how much and to do what?), the consultants brought in to 'explain' what things meant as if school governors weren't capable of working it out for themselves and in particular the disgraceful bullying that went on over the ICT contracts with schools effectively being told that if they didn't sign up they might lose their place in the queue for the capital investment in buildings and would certainly lose the investment in IT.

As it happens , many of our fears about where the IT contracts might lead are now being played out in areas where schools were obliged to sign up to contracts involving annual per pupil payments , based on school rolls that are now falling, a problem that may now be compounded by the arrival of new free schools, and in an era of real terms budget cuts.

On the wider points that Laura makes, I assume that James was directed towards the recommendations that the government wants, and predict that the lack of transparency over how much money is being reserved for, or spent. on free schools, will be a running sore. There must be some indicative sum beyond the £50 million taken from the Harnessing Technology Grant since PfS is apparently now claiming that it is buying up potential sites around the country. However it is clear that no one really wants to be explicit about this as all FOI requests, e-mails and letters from MPs on the subject seem to go into the big black correspondence hole.

I think we can also see in James a continuation of the conflict that beleagued the Labour government, between wanting to give schools autonomy/ freedom, and wanting to control everything from the centre. The tone of the Review seems to echo the patronising attitude taken by PfS that schools, their heads, teachers, pupils and governing bodies are not really well placed, or qualified, to make decisions about complicated matters like school buildings or IT. Help with procurement is of course welcome, although I can see no reason why this can't be done at a local level possibly by groups of schools working together supported by their LAs, but in the end it is the schools, their heads and governors who are best placed to decide what is right for their pupils now and in the future. These recommendations seem to allow for very little innovation or diversity, which is ironic given the public rhetoric.

Bob Harrison's picture
Sun, 10/04/2011 - 10:45

Laura I think you miss my point?

I shop for twenty minutes(less if I can help it) but pupils are in a learning environment for much longer.(it could be even longer if we utilised technology more effectively and teachers had the skills) Secondly the process of purchasing is relatively simple compared to the pedagogical,neurological,sociological and psychological complexities of teaching and learning? ( Well from my experience as a shopper v a teacher and learner over 40 years)

However I do think James has a point about just building a shell and keeping options open.. Shell+wireless cloud+ open/blended learning+ reskilled workforce+redesigned assessment system= schools of the future?

The schools of the future proposed by James will not meet the future needs of learners. Martin Bean VC of the OU describes this as the "crisis of relevance" facing our schools and colleges. The James report ignores this vital issue and comparisons with retail are simplistic. As is the report itself.

Bob Harrison's picture
Sun, 10/04/2011 - 11:01

Thanks Fiona, I agree that experiences with PfS were variable and it sounds like yours was not good. I think there were some good people in PfS but as the "waves" surged in it was difficult to ensure quality.

As far as ICT goes I have experienced it from both sides of the process and PfS did have a preferred way (the managed service) although some projects did their own thing but it was a fight. You are right about the tension between local decisions and aggregated procurement and the whole issue of the ICT support for schools is now very, very uncertain. My colleague Merlin John has a detailed look at this in an article to be published soon so keep an eye on twitter. LA's are making teams redundant,big commercial providers are now backing off because of the the risk/profitability and some schools are going back to doing their own thing. In my view the TCO of ICT in schools will rise significantly unless this issue is addressed and James seems to have side-stepped it?

Fiona Millar's picture
Sun, 10/04/2011 - 12:22

I didn't really know anything about IT, or IT in schools, until our local LEP procurement started. I now know more than I ever thought I would. I am still a relative amateur when it comes to the technical detail but do understand that how we use IT in schools is vital to any future vision for education. People who now dismiss IT as being irrelevant, and yearn for the old days of chalk and talk, are making a big mistake.

However I think it was clear under Labour, and now under Gove, that ministers don't really understand anything about this subject, which allowed PfS to get away with its underhand tactics to get people to sign up to the managed service, even though ASCL and the SSAT, not to mention individual MPs, heads and chairs of governors with the ears of minister, lobbied hard for a change in policy.

I think most schools would welcome opportunities for joint procurement, and good independent IT advice, but without the obligation to go into a 'one size fits all' managed service especially at a time when school budgets are so uncertain. In case you are interested , here are is a general piece piece I wrote about BSF and the managed services at the time and another blog I wrote about IT in particular.

After the first piece, which appeared in Guardian Education, I received e-mails and calls from governors and heads all over the country who had similar concerns. I appreciate this issue may not be of general interest, but in some ways it does go to the heart of what we mean by school autonomy. I suspect we will see , post James, and with the development of "chains" of schools, concerns arising about what autonomy really does really mean in practice.

Laura McInerney's picture
Mon, 11/04/2011 - 09:15

Bob- I completely agree that teaching is more complicated than purchasing. But that's why James has reported on purchasing only, and not teaching. It could seem a bit daft - having someone with no experience of teaching in charge - but I do think it's important to have someone good at land management at the head of these things.

I am with you, and James, on shells. This 'over-simplification' of a learning space is probably the only thing that will save people from a space that becomes outdated quickly.

Mind you, I also agree that it might have been better to spend the time reviewing how best to implement technology - it's where the true differences in education will come from. Eventually!

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