Mixed reactions to spending watchdog report on free schools programme

There are mixed reactions across the media the morning to a National Audit Office study into the free schools programme. Overall they are deemed as providing ‘good value for money’ (Times) but the costs are going up and are well over the original budget (Guardian). Additionally, most are reported as being in places of need (Telegraph) but many are not (Independent). This is how the BBC is reporting it…

The government’s flagship free school programme will cost at least three times the sum originally allocated, the public spending watchdog has found.

The National Audit Office said the scheme allowing groups to set up state-funded schools would cost £1.5bn – the original Treasury grant was £450m…

The NAO said the programme prioritised speed over value for money and many schools were not in areas of need.

The report, Establishing Free Schools, analyses Education Secretary Michael Gove’s free school programme which has seen 174 schools open in England between September 2011 and 2013.

While it praises the speed with which the Department for Education has opened schools – with a future capacity of 82,000 places – the auditors call for a tighter watch on rising costs, and stresses the government underestimated the funds it needed.

Its original Treasury grant of £450m had to be topped up to £1.5bn with extra Treasury funds and money from other DfE building projects.

And it points out the average cost per school at £6.6m is twice the DfE’s assumption.

The report says: “To date, the primary factor in decision-making has been opening schools at pace, rather than maximising value for money. The Department will need to exert more control over a rising cost trend.”

“Many schools have been established quickly and at relatively low cost,” it says, but warns that “to safeguard its £1.5bn planned investment” the DfE needs to “systematically respond to emerging risks”.

And it suggests a review of the oversight of the programme may be needed in the light of the early problems that have emerged.

These include financial mismanagement claims at three open free schools, two of which have been judged to be providing an inadequate standard of education…

The report also confirms that despite intense pressure on school places in some areas, many free schools have opened in parts of the country with no places pressure.

More than a quarter of all spending on school buildings – £241m out of £950m – has been on free schools in areas with no need for extra places forecast, the report says.

It also reveals the DfE received no applications to open primary free schools in half of all districts with high or severe need for new places. This is crucial because if local councils want to set up new schools they have to invite free school or academy providers to bid…

Head of the NAO Amyas Morse said: “The programme’s success and value for money ultimately depend on how free schools perform but lessons must be learned systematically from the problems that have arisen in a few of the early wave schools, especially where these have revealed failures in governance and control.”

…A DfE spokesman said it made “no apologies” for implementing its reforms as quickly as possible and claimed free schools offered good value for money.

“As the NAO states, ‘Many new schools have been established quickly and at relatively low cost.’ We are opening free schools at a fraction of £25m it cost to build a new school under the Building Schools for the Future programme.

“We have also cut the cost of building a new school by around 45% compared to previous school building programmes.”

Shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt said providing enough good school places was a basic responsibility for any government – something he said this government was failing to deliver…

More at:  Free schools budget trebled to £1.5bn, report shows

The media can’t decide whether this report is a boost or a rebuke for the free schools programme – what do you think? Please share in the comments or on twitter… 

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Categories: Free Schools.


  1. Jane_Basham

    SchoolsImprove Can it be right tho’ that #Suffolk schools face cuts when they need it the most? #gove is wrong TristramHuntMP

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