Michael Gove was right to apologise yesterday. When he made his statement to the Commons about Building Schools for the Future he should have shared with us the list of projects affected. Where his Labour predecessors might well have tried to “bury bad news” without volunteering a statement, he correctly appeared, but unfortunately did not share all he knew. He made a fulsome apology, and took full responsibility for mistakes made by others as well as himself.
He now, however, has two other problems not covered by his misjudgement about what to say and not to say in the original statement. The first is the failure of his department and the associated quangos to provide him with accurate lists of the schools covered by the Schools for the future programme. Given the huge sums spent on the bureaucracy of these building schemes, and the generous staffing of his department and the related quangos, it is predictable but worrying that they could not supply the boss with a simple list of all the schools under the programme, and with a related schedule of which ones were currently approved for building and which were not.
This should be a timely reminder or wake up call for all Ministers. The levels of administrative and advisory competence are not always as high as they need when running a busy department. The Minister himself has to check the detail and insist on higher quality work. All the extra spending and recruitment of the Labour years has not created a more competent administration.
The second is the presentation of what the government is doing. In the statement I heard Michael Gove make he was clear in saying he was cancelling the approach of Building Schools for the future because it was an expensive, long winded and inefficient way of building schools. He did not say he was cancelling all new schools building. Indeed, if he is right and he can save substantial sums on the box ticking detailed regulatory approach of the old programme this could leave him with more moeny to spend on bricks and mortar. This message has got entirely lost in the broadcasts and newspaper stories about cuts, leading most people to think there will now be no new schools.
This needs turning round as quickly as possible. According to the figures the Coaliton government is going to spend as much on new capital projects as the outgoing Labour government. In that case they might end up building more schools than Labour for the same amount of money if Mr Gove is right about how to do it more cheaply. I asked him what savings he expected from stopping the BSF approach. He said he would write to me with the answer. The sooner I get that letter the sooner he can tell the country about the waste that is being eliminated and the extra money that should then be available for bricks and mortar.