Government free school programme costing more than planned

Government free school programme costing more than planned

By: Information Daily Staff Writer
Published: Wednesday, December 11, 2013 – 13:10 GMTJump to Comments  

The cost of the government’s flagship free school programme is now more than the double the original “aggressive” estimate, the spending watchdog suggests.

The National Audit Office (NAO) said that the scheme introduced by Education Secretary Michael Gove would cost £1.5 billion, despite the original grant from the Treasury standing at £450 million.

Labour’s Shadow Education Minister, Tristram Hunt MP, said the programme is “failing” to meet the demand for school places and operating with “a complete lack of financial and transparency and local accountability”.

Free schools, launched in June 2010, are new academies, which are directly funded by the Department for Education (DfE) and are independent of local authorities.

The schools have the freedom to choose what is studied in their curriculum, how to organise the school day and year, what food is offered at lunch time, and staffing and budgets.

The audit watchdog, in its report published today, found that by September 2013, the Department had opened 174 free schools, with a further 116 schools in the pipeline and 105 of which will open in September 2014.

In total, NAO said that the projected capacity of the schools will be nearly 82,000 places, with an additional 62,000 places when the approved 116 schools are open and full.

The watchdog praises the Department for achieving “clear progress on a policy priority”, but warned that the pace of the project had overshadowed the objective to maximise value for money.

According to NAO, the DfE received £450 million in the 2010 Spending Review for the programme following a tough capital settlement.

This was then subsequently increased to £1.5 billion, just over 8 per cent of its total capital budget, through additional funds from HM Treasury and savings in other capital budgets.

“At £6.6 million per school, the average unit cost of premises is more than double its original aggressive planning assumption”, said the report.

Analysing the impact on local need, the report says that 87 per cent of free school primary places opened in 2013 were in districts where forecast need for school places was “high or severe”.

However, the report warned that free schools have opened in areas of the country where there was no pressure for places, and some free schools have not attracted as many pupils as they planned in their first year.

Whilst addressing forecast local need is not a formal objective of the free schools programme, NAO points out that it is one of the Department’s wider priorities for capital spending.

Approximately 60 per cent of Schools opened in temporary premises so they could open in September, at a cost of at least £27 million.

In contrast, the Department has delayed opening seven planned schools because it judged that permanent premises could not be found at an acceptable cost.

Education Minister Elizabeth Truss said: she was pleased the NAO has recognised the government’s progress as free schools are one of the government’s “success stories”.

She said: “Free schools are popular with parents and are delivering strong discipline and teaching excellence across the country”.

“Three-quarters of the free schools inspected have been rated good or outstanding”, she said. “The vast majority are opening in areas facing a shortage of school places, or in deprived communities”.

“We want to open many more high-quality free schools, so every child has the chance to go to an excellent local school”.

Christine Blower, General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: “It is a disgrace that the key determinant of the free schools policy so far has been to ensure the opening of schools at pace, rather than ensuring that they are needed and will provide ‘value for money”.

Hunt added: “This report is further evidence of the inexcusable crisis that David Cameron has created in school places”.

“Providing enough good school places is a basic responsibility for any government”, he said. “Yet this Tory-led Government is failing to deliver for all children, diverting two-thirds of Free School places away from areas of need”.

“We know that standards are suffering as a result. Teacher quality is being damaged. Free Schools have been allowed to take on unqualified teachers on a permanent basis”.

The free schools programme study comes as education watchdog Ofsted publishes its second annual report, unveiling a tougher stance towards disruption in the classroom.

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