The National Audit Office have published a report scrutinising the DfE’s Free School policy.
No doubt the government will trumpet the headline that most primary Free School places are in areas of high need (which is good), and talk lots about how much better the process now is (which it is), but buried in the report there are still some pretty concerning findings. Here are the key 12:
1. Only 19% of secondary places are in areas of high or severe need – 81% of the places are in areas which aren’t facing any severe shortage.
2. 42 schools have opened in areas with no forecasted place need – These schools cost £241 million. Which you might think was okay until you realise that….
3. No-one applied to open schools in half the areas with severe or high primary place shortages – That £241 million might have been quite useful in providing schools there, no? Meanwhile there’s still no plan for what will happen in these locations.
4. Fifteen projects were cancelled or withdrawn at a cost of £700,000 – The £700k was “written off” by the DfE. But it’s in someone’s pocket somewhere…..
5. In 2012, only 16% of new Free Schools filled all their places – 16%. I can’t get past it. 16%. So this idea that free schools are well-loved and over-subscribed is quite the fib.
6. Even now, the average Free School recruits only 3/4 of its planned intake on first opening – Admittedly, this hides enormous variations. Some schools are over-subscribed, but approx. 40% of schools still had 1 in 5 places vacant during their second year. This is problematic (and expensive).
7. Average school premises have cost TWICE the original estimate – The average is £6.6 million per school. (I presume the early guess was £3.3m). Getting it wrong by that margin is quite impressive. Also, Free Schools are getting more expensive. Schools opened in 2013 were 1/3rd more expensive (capital cost wise) than ones opened in 2011.
8. The DfE doesn’t have a framework for assessing the impact of open Free Schools on other education establishments, or their value for money – Because *fingers in ears*….
9. 1 in 3 of schools planned to open in 2014 do not have a postcode for the proposed location – So when politicians say “free schools will be in areas serving the most vulnerable pupils” they’re basically bluffing. They can’t assess the deprivation of the local area if they don’t know where schools will eventually be. (The NAO therefore also couldn’t assess this either)
10. Converting 15 independent schools into Free Schools required the DfE to write-off £8m of existing debts and spend £15m on facilities and accommodation – Which is weird, because I thought the private sector was super efficient and able to deal with finances way better than the public sector.
11. 60% of Free Schools opened in temporary accommodation which cost a minimum £27m – Notice: temporary buildings. So that money is effectively burned. Would be interesting to know if these schools were in areas needing places quickly or if they could have waited (and saved themselves the enormous cost).
12. Over 11% of the teaching staff in Free Schools were reported as unqualified, compared to just under 4% in all other state-funded schools – Make of that one what you will.
To ‘redress the balance’ of my negative tone, Jonathan Simons over at Policy Exchange has written 12 Positive Things About The NAO Report. It’s an interesting take, and useful for hearing both sides, but be cautious of his use of words like “good” and “cheaply”. Those do not appear in the report. (Which is why I didn’t use those sorts of evaluative words in my own list).