Free schools: A pledge to waste even more of your money

As the General Election campaign gains momentum, two extremely alarming stories have emerged that, in my view, are not getting the attention that they deserve. Even more oddly, scrutiny of the response to them by the main parties seems fleeting at best.

This week, the Conservative Chair of the children and young people’s board of the Local Government Association (LGA) gave a dire warning of an imminent primary school places crisis in England. As early as next September, approximately 40% of local authority areas will face a shortfall in available places.

If that was not bad enough, last month news arrived that should concern every parent with children of school age. As reported in the Times Educational Supplement, money used to support existing secondary schools has become so tight that four fifths of respondents to a survey by the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) “said their schools would not have enough funding to meet “essential needs” over the next 12 months.” This is largely due to schools having to find an extra 5% to fund new statutory employer contributions for pensions and national insurance whilst not gaining an equivalent increase in funding.

The highlighted funding squeeze was the subject of some media coverage this weekend as teaching unions discussed whether predicted budget reductions following the General Election should lead to strike action. However, by and large, it is barely featuring in the campaigns. Unexamined statements about ‘protecting the schools budget’ are made but there is precious little coverage of what this actually means. Indeed, the BBC’s own “manifesto guide” to education pledges is pathetic in its lack of detail and analysis.

The schools budget is made up of funding to early years, 5-16 and 16-19 provision and includes capital funding for school maintenance, building improvements and new schools. Therefore it is quite possible to cut certain parts of that budget and divert funds to others and still claim to be ‘protecting’ it overall. In addition, it is imperative to understand whether ‘protection’ or ‘ring fencing’ means maintaining current spending levels in cash terms or whether it is a pledge to ensure funding matches inflation. Clearly if cash spending remains level and inflation rises there will be less to spend. Bear that in mind when listening to politicians over the coming month.

cameron and goveSo we can see that use of language and lack of understanding of what politicians mean by the ‘schools budget’ can muddy the waters about what each party is actually offering. However one pledge was made very early on in this campaign which seems extraordinary given the financial and school places backdrop; David Cameron announced his intention to establish a further 500 ‘free schools’ during the life of the next parliament should he retain power.

If the programme follows the same path as those schools already established, this effectively amounts to a promise to squander public money.

It is a matter of public record, confirmed by the Department for Education (DfE), that a significant percentage of free schools have been set up where there is no shortage of places. When money is apparently so tight and we have a clear shortfall in school places how can continuing this policy be justified, let alone be a central pledge to win votes?

Suffolk head teacher Geoff Barton was appropriately incredulous in his regular column in the East Anglian Daily Times in the week of the Prime Minister’s announcement:

“Whatever the rhetoric, not all free schools have opened where there’s a demographic need. Too many, it seems, have been deliberately opened where there are already surplus school places.

“So in the current age of austerity why is public money being given to pressure groups who manufacture wasteful extra places? Thus ‘free schools’ are actually nothing of the kind. There’s nothing free about them. They cost money and these costs are often considerable.”

As I have already stated, there is no denial that the government has used our money to fund schools where there is no need to provide places, only the percentage is in slight doubt. The DfE press release of the time states:

“72% are located in areas with a shortage of places.”

A parliamentary briefing paper from the House of Commons library published last December reports:

“The Department for Education has said that 75% of places in mainstream free schools that are either open or have been approved are in areas where there was a need for extra school places or there is a projected need for new places in the future.”

While the latest National Audit Office (NAO) report from late in the previous year reveals:

“Around 70 per cent of estimated primary and secondary places from open or approved Free Schools are in districts forecasting some need for places”

Given these statements it is reasonable to conclude that so far a minimum of 25% of ‘free schools’ have been given part of the schools budget to establish themselves where there is no requirement for school places.

So when Natalie Evans, director of the New Schools Network, whose very existence depends upon the continuation of the free school programme, seeks to defend this in the BBC report on the primary places crisis by claiming that “free schools that are open or are approved will create nearly a quarter of a million extra places” we must remember that around 25% of those (62,500) were surplus to requirements and had no effect on easing the problem.

NAOThe NAO report goes on to report on the effectiveness of the free school programme in providing places “in districts forecasting high or severe need”:

“Only 19 per cent of secondary places in Free Schools are in such areas.”


They then spell out how much this profligacy has cost us and how inefficient it is in meeting the need for school places:

“The estimated total capital costs for Schools opened in districts with no forecast need for extra school places are at least £241 million out of a projected total of £950 million for mainstream Schools. The Department has received no applications to open primary Free Schools in half of all districts with high or severe forecast need.”

 It is barely believable that such an amount has already been spent while budgets are tight.

It is completely offensive to promise to continue such practice while existing schools expect to suffer a minimum of 5% budget cuts.

If David Cameron wishes to continue the free school programme he must promise to only fund the creation of schools where there is genuine, demonstrable need for places. Anything else must be seen as profligacy.

Frankly, I am staggered that opposition parties have not spelled this out on a very regular basis since his announcement as it directly contradicts the central Conservative claim to be the best custodians of tax-payers money.

The DfE’s enactment of the free school programme has demonstrated a flabbergasting lack of care with scarce public funds which is seemingly blind to the growing needs of the 99.5% of young people who attend other schools and colleges. As the NAO concluded:

“To date, the primary factor in decision-making has been opening Schools at pace, rather than maximising value for money.”

 Given the proven inefficiencies of this project, we should expect a pledge to end such waste, not a promise to continue it.

Stephen Mayo

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