Q55 Tessa Munt: How exactly do you feel that need or deprivation—the one-size-fits-all programme—works in rural communities? I represent a seat in rural Somerset where there isn’t a lot of choice because there are 12 or 15 miles between schools, and some of those schools had been in pretty poor condition. We also operate a middle school system, so it doesn’t always fit the secondary criteria. How did you feel about what I perceive as the fairly bullying—we return to the theme of the session involving the previous witness—attitude of government know best and one size fits all?
Ed Balls: If the question is whether it was right to go local authority by local authority through this programme, I think the answer is yes, because that was the only way to achieve educational transformation, rather than simply individual schools being replaced. Am I concerned about the impact of the cancellation of these schools and, obviously, wave 7 onwards on rural communities? The answer is hugely, because the fact is that the schools that are most affected—these 700 schools—are not the schools with the greatest concentration of deprivation as measured by free school meals. They are schools that cover a very wide range of urban and rural, deprived and less deprived areas. In my experience doing the job, when you went to schools in inner-city areas or in rural areas, there were schools that would say, “Look, this building isn’t really fit for purpose and we’re a bit frustrated, but we know that there’s a process and we know what our position is. It’s a bit frustrating waiting two or three years, but at least we know it’s coming.” It is those schools—I think many of them are in rural areas—that will be in the list of 720 schools that have suddenly had that hope taken away, so I’m really worried about it.
Q56 Tessa Munt: Let me move on slightly. There was a problem whereby you were not listening to local schools, wasn’t there? For example, the application of BSF meant that you perhaps had a local authority that was a client but that didn’t have any say in anything effectively, and very little communication was possible between architects and designers of schools and those people who actually operated within them.
Ed Balls: That is not my experience both as Secretary of State, when my engagement in the detail of BSF was at a high level, and as a constituency MP. I’m a constituency MP in one of the areas where schools have been cancelled that had spent two years preparing and went into the programme in wave 7 last autumn. I would say there was a very great deal of across-the-community discussion about where the priorities were, the way in which new buildings could encourage collaboration and the importance of making sure that the procurement worked well. To be honest, there was some frustration that the local authority took time to gear up to really be able to deliver this transformation, but there was also a lot of buy-in, not just from the five schools that were in the first wave of our bid, but from the latter schools, which knew there was a purpose and a rationale for that. What you describe isn’t my experience at all.
Q57 Tessa Munt: But as a political animal, you must have been able to foresee—or somebody should have been able to tell you and your predecessors—that it was completely bonkers to put together and run through a time scale that took no account of local factors. I take those factors as being very political. For example, in one situation, there was a school that had a particular programmed date for opening, but the whole programme was put back by a year purely because no one in the Government had recognised that the planners don’t sit for three months during local elections, nor do people sit through the summer—you couldn’t get a planning committee together. If there had been more collaboration with local people, someone would have told you or the people who advise you in your Department.
Ed Balls: We have to have an honest conversation about this. We have to talk about the way in which the programme evolved. In his statement abolishing the programme, the Secretary of State referred to the nine phases of BSF. Those nine phases were reduced to five phases two or three years ago. I agree that having nine phases was a mistake, but you can’t say that what was the case years ago and was changed is a reason for abolishing the programme now. I think the reality was that there was a real lack of capacity in central and local government to manage the scale of this kind of transformation, as it hadn’t been done for decades. That is not a party political point. It may well be that the previous Conservative Government built no schools, but I don’t think there were many secondary schools built by the Labour Government between 1974 and 1979 either, so it is not a party political point. However, it took time to get the system in place. The reality was, as you can see very clearly from the NAO and the PWC reports, that in the early phase, there was absurd optimism about how long the process would take.
Tessa Munt: But also a lack of decent advice.
Ed Balls: I agree.
Q58 Tessa Munt: That is when you get something put aside because of someone complaining about their right to light over a building project. This is ludicrous.
Ed Balls: Yes, but that is not a good reason to cancel 720 schools.
Tessa Munt: No, it isn’t. What I am saying to you is—
Ed Balls: If you read these reports, you can see that the points you make are absolutely right about the early phase of the programme. It was also the case that as the programme went on, there were some areas that did better and others that did worse. For example, Stoke is the bane of my life and that of both Schools Ministers, who totally mishandled the consultation and never built a consensus about educational transformation. We could have said, “Let’s scrap the whole programme and have a lottery to see who gets their schools first,” but that would have been an absurd thing to do because Stoke needed more time to get to a set of outcomes that could command consensus and transform educational life chances for the next 50 years. There were times when the lack of capacity meant that you needed to take more, not less, time.