Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Building schools: education policy and social justice -keynote speech University of Bristol 20 October 2010

Thought you might enjoy the speech I gave last week to the Graduate School of Education at University of Bristol.

Firstly I’d like to thank you for inviting me to come and speak.  My name’s Kate Reynolds and I’m Chief Executive of Learning Plus UK.  Learning Plus Uk works with schools and colleges to improve standards and to make a difference to children and young people.

BRISTOL, UNITED KINGDOM - FEBRUARY 24:  Primar...Image by Getty Images via @daylifeI started with Learning Plus an education charity at the beginning of October following a career spanning the public and private sectors.  My work has always revolved around the inter-relationship of central Government policies on education and their implementation in a local context – be it local management of schools in 1980s, the introduction of nursery vouchers in 1990s or Building Schools for the Future in the early 21st century.  This interplay, the weft and weave of education policy and what this tells us about the state, civil society and what we want from schools - have been at the core of a fascination with education in its broadest sense which has shaped my career and my own learning for more than 20 years.

Talking to you today is, then, a space for me to reflect personally and professionally – to give myself room to look back and look forwards – to understand why as someone committed to social justice and the importance of education as the ladder to raise community aspirations and to make the world a different place – I found my career moving from the public sector (where I was Deputy Director of Education in two local authorities) via a period in the private sector (heading up a consultancy business focused on learning and children’s services) to a position as a Chief Executive in a third sector organisation. 

BRISTOL, UNITED KINGDOM - FEBRUARY 24:  A olde...Image by Getty Images via @daylifeReflecting it seems to me that in a sense my work experience mirrors the shifts in Government policy over the last 20 or so years – starting with a Conservative Government committed to introducing the market into education, through a Labour Government actively using investment in schools and learning as a mechanism for community regeneration to a ConDem Government talking about a greater role for the third sector under the guise of the Big Society.

I am speaking today in a personal capacity rather than as a spokesperson for Learning Plus Uk.  That is important both for some of the things I might say (these are merely my own thoughts and opinions) and because it reflects the notion that we are both shaped by the society and times in which we live and key agents in that world.

I am a child of the welfare state – my mum and dad both being the first of their families to attend University and get degrees – a result of the post war expansion of education and the grants for disadvantaged young people to study at higher education level.  My own schooling was the local state school and a degree courtesy of Thames Polytechnic and the universal system of no tuition fees….my it seems a lifetime ago and it is!

So for me the notion that education is a mechanism for altering the world, for giving access to dreams, ideas, alternatives and concepts and learning which can lead to change for the better, for me this is a ‘family thing’ – its as much a part of my DNA as it is my professional world.  I worry that ‘closing down’ opportunities to people to learn is ‘shutting the door’ on new ways of thinking and new hopes and dreams that could hold the key to making the world a better place.

So given this backdrop and my interest in education as a mechanism for social justice and the interplay between the world of high politics and what goes on in schools, I want to specifically focus this talk on one of the key Government agendas and policies which I was closely involved with – the last Labour Government’s Building Schools for the Future programme.  I want particularly to look at how the programme brought about different relationships between the public and private sectors, how it conceptualized the roles of local authorities, schools and private sector providers and what underpinned the programme in terms of an approach to community cohesion and regeneration and the role of schools in their locale.

The BSF initiative was a key plank of the last Labour Government’s approach to education and was rooted in a belief that school buildings could make a difference to their communities, the staff and the children and the local economy.  As well as being about transforming learning and new ways of teaching, it was a economic regeneration strategy, one focused on areas of disadvantage that had suffered from a lack of community investment for a significant period of time.

The Government inherited a significant backlog of repairs and maintenance due to a chronic lack of capital investment in state schools.  The quality of school buildings was perceived as having a real impact on the standards of achievement and the ability of teachers to support learners and to equip them with the skills they might need for the 21st century. 

The plan was to remodel, rebuild or refurbish all secondary schools in the country through a phase programme of capital investment.  A Non Departmental Public Body (in old money a quango!) – Partnerships for Schools was established to oversee the delivery of the programme and establish the framework for approving local authorities bids for capital investment.

Moreover, BSF was intended explicitly and implicitly as a strategy to boost schools in deprived areas (with the first sequencing of the programme prioritizing schools whose pupils had a high incidence of free school meals and later sequences focusing on schools with performance results below floor targets of 30% A*- C GCSE including English and Maths).  It was intended as a vehicle to regenerate local areas through using capital investment as tool to create new opportunities for local employment (through using the local workforce) and as an intentional signal through the use of quality architects and architectural designs of the importance of schools and their local communities.  The earliest projects often involved signature architects delivering academy schools (for example the Roger’s and Foster’s iconic designs for London schools) epitomizing a view of the importance of statement architecture in areas of the country plagued by deprivation and low community and social aspirations.  The view was clear: school buildings were important, school buildings changed social aspirations, school buildings made a difference to learning outcomes. Schools made a difference to children.

The language of the BSF programme was intention, it talked about strategies for change, community cohension, every child matters, social inclusion and most loudly and explicitly TRANSFORMATION.  The political (with both a capital and small P) rhetoric centred on schools making a difference in transforming the lives of young people and therefore the outcomes for communities.(slide with quote)

BSF also transformed the relationships between the public and private sectors in education through a series of structures and delivery vehicles that brought both worlds together. 

Each local authority had to submit a Strategy for Change which showed the difference that capital investment would make to their local communities and schools.  The objectives of the change encompassed ensuring sufficient school places to meet demand, through to adding social capital to the community through a variety of arts and community events and involvement.  The private sector was recruited through a procurement framework which enabled local authorities to buy consultants to work with them to develop the strategy.  There were three main frameworks, one for education consultancy, one for ICT and one for technical advice.  All new school builds and programmes above a certain threshold would be funded using the Private Finance Initiative – a mechanism for getting private sector investment into public sector projects with the promise of a secured revenue pipeline for some 25 years.

In the private sector working for one of the major consultancy firms, I was responsible for bidding to be on the frameworks and once we were on them, working with local authorities to deliver their Strategy which would be the key to unlocking capital investment. 

They were heady days back in 2006!  My team and I worked with some of the most challenging local authorities – building relationships between schools and their local authorities and helping them to write winning strategies. I did work for some of the NDPBs, helping them to think through the impact of school building on local communities and how this could be assessed and measured.  I advised, coached, acted as an interim Director and helped to make school buildings a reality for young people.  Over the course of my time in the private sector, my team helped nearly 30 authorities with a potential impact on over 150,000 young people in schools.

Consultants were used since they were easy to get rid of and could provide an interim resource without big overheads – no redundancy pay! There was also a lack of capacity in local authorities – many of whom had not had a schools capital team for 20 years or more.  So there was little expertise of how to build schools, how to get the best deal from the private sector, how to engage communities.

The satisfaction came from little as well as big things – school children who saw examples of new schools and said ‘that school won’t be for us we don’t get nice things like that’.  Groups of young people who in workshops talked seriously about what skills and learning they might need for the new century and how schools could help them get such skills.

If the strategy was successful, authorities would embark on the process of securing a local education partnership – a joint venture between the public and private sectors with the public sector supplying equity literally ‘buying the public sector into the private sector’.  Through a process of competitive dialogue sample schemes for a small group of schools were produced showing how these designs would meet the key aims of the strategy.  A preferred bidder would be selected and the initimate details of the contract drawn up.  Once financial close was reached – work could start.

One of the difficulties for which the programme has been criticized was the length of time it could take for school buildings to be built – from start to finish some buildings were taking 4 or 5 years.  However, if you think about what the programme was intending to do – use capital investment to regenerate a community and you can see how the process could be inordinately long and the process of engaging with all the different stakeholders somewhat protacted.  The bid costs were high but the rewards were great – both for the private sector who got guaranteed contracts for 25 years and the public sector who got the new schools they so desperately needed.BRISTOL, UNITED KINGDOM - FEBRUARY 24:  Primar...Image by Getty Images via @daylife

So what happened?  Well….the election came and instead of transformational learning and transforming communities, the new Government is focusing on scaling back the deficit and reigning back large scale infrastructure programmes.

One of the first things Michael Gove as Secretary of State for Education did was to end the Building Schools for the Future programme.  You’ll perhaps remember the ongoing saga through the summer about which schemes were ‘in programme’ and would go ahead and which wouldn’t.  This has continued into the autumn with a number of local authorities seeking a judicial review on the decision to cease the programme.

As well as stopping the BSF programme, the new Government quickly introduced a bill which became enacted before the summer break.  The Act enables those schools judged by OfSted to be outstanding to become Academy schools – through a fast track process that saw some 36 schools become Academies this term.  The Act also puts in place the framework for ‘free schools’ – schools run by groups of parents, teachers or charities independent of the local authority and funded directly by central Government.

What’s interesting about the new political landscape and the role of education within it is the continuance of education policy as a contested arena for political debate and the state.  Despite the rhetoric of localism and freedom from the interference of the state, in order to ensure such localism and freedom the Government pushed the legislation through Parliament at a phenomenal rate.   The Free School movement was heralded as a means of letting people run their own schools and local authorities would be removed from ‘controlling’ schools.  As yet though there hasn’t been a groundswell of support with a likely 16 possible Free Schools from September 2011.

Interestingly much of the debate has returned again to the relationship between school buildings and the quality of teaching and learning.  Toby Young, a proponent of Free Schools and keen to set up his own in West London argues that we don’t need iconically designed buildings to teach kids and much of private sector is following this lead by looking at how empty spaces such as warehouses or even disused Department for Education office could be retro fitted to equip them as schools.

So for me, following the election, working in the private sector was no longer viable, it wasn’t about making a difference to children and young people and using capital investment as a transformational lever to turn around disadvantaged local communities.  It was about bottom lines, profit and chasing the market.  I found myself increasingly angry – angry at organisations that focused solely on the bottom line, bending anyway education policy went in order to make a profit, angry at a shift to political agenda that didn’t see the impact that buildings could have on communities and angry at possibilities of my job becoming introducing the private sector into state education.

Sitting alongside this shift to introducing new providers into the education system is a move to decrease the power of the state in delivering services.  Building on Labour’s commissioning model for Councils, the new Big Society emphasises local groups of people coming together to make a difference to their local communities – we can see this in some of the notions around parent promoter schools and free schools.

In particular, there’s started to be a greater emphasis on the role of the third sector (charities and voluntary organisations) both as a means of reducing the deficit (they’re cheaper!) and a means of reducing the power of local government and the state as a provider of goods and services.  It is very early days in the journey of the Big Society and as yet it is really not clear what this will mean for education services in general and schools in particular.

As for me, following the election, I was lucky enough to be appointed as Chief Executive of a not for profit charity that focuses on providing support to education leaders through supplying high quality performance data and a range of training and consultancy services.  Working with higher and further education and schools and colleges, we help education organisations to understand what they’re doing well and what they’re doing not so well so that they can improve learn and grow. 

It’s satisfying to be in an organisation that cares passionately about making a difference to the education sector and one that is driven by values rather than profit.  It’s exciting to be working alongside schools, colleges and higher education to look at new ways we can help them.  It’s interesting to be professionally at the crossroads of Government policy and its implementation.

Ultimately in terms of education and social justice and as people who work in education, our professional lives are intimately bound with our values and how we make a difference to the next generation.  I don’t believe young people should be educated in buildings which are not fit for purpose, I don’t believe that learning is a production line that you can place children in and come out with a finished model, I do believe that schools, their buildings, their communities, their students and their staff deserve iconic buildings that make a statement that says ‘education matters’.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to reflect on how my professional career has intertwined with vagaries of education policy and how the relationship between private, public and third sectors continues to develop and change and in the end, the difference that we all can make. 

Thank you for listening.

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