By and large the money has been well spent. Tony Blair’s Building Schools for the Future scheme is certainly not without its problems – I worry, for instance, how much of the running of our schools it puts into private hands – and it is such a huge project for local authorities to undertake when they don’t necessarily have the expertise to do so. Leicester City Council’s £300 million programme, although apparently on track now, saw months of delays, seemingly in part because of this.
For those reasons it is understandable that teaching unions were sceptical when it was announced nearly five years ago that Leicester would be among the first areas of the country to dive in. Their argument was that money would be better spent getting good quality teachers into the classrooms.
But judging by the attendance of notable union members at the official opening of the wonderful new Beaumont Leys school yesterday, it looks like they’ve been won over. As have I.
I remember visiting the new Leicester Grammar School site about a year ago, long before the four new secondary schools in Leicester opened. This fee-paying school has relocated and opened in stunning surroundings on the outskirts of the city and the building is full of fantastic features, it’s no wonder that many children will leave feeling they’ve had a head-start in life.
I left wondering what sort of achievements children in Leicester’s comprehensives would have if they received that level of investment.
And not a moment before time. Some of the schools I visit in Leicester shame us all. I’ve seen classes taught in corridors, repulsive toilets and Victorian buildings where you have to walk through one classroom to get to another or to get outside.
There is still a long way to go. With the ever increasing squeeze on public finances well-informed people are beginning to ask how long this investment can continue.
Yesterday I asked the new schools minister Vernon Coaker this exact question. He gave me the unequivocal answer that the £316 million pledged to Leicester would materialise. This would pay for every secondary school in the city to look as good as these first four.
If that’s true, and as long as a General Election doesn’t change that, we have to welcome it with open arms.
People resent paying taxes, particularly when times are tough, but they should take a look at how these new school buildings have breathed new life into education in these parts of the city.
I’m still not convinced the country can afford this level of investment. And even if Leicester is paid for, Leicestershire’s money, which is due to start coming through in a couple of years, looks distinctly uncertain.
If the money does run out we’re back coping in buildings that prevent children reaching their potential. A nice building isn’t everything, but it is a start.