The 12 Most Critical Findings of the NAO Free School Report

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 Fifteen projects were cancelled or withdrawn at a cost of £700,000 – The £700k was “written off” by the DfE.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).

And finally,

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).

8 thoughts on “The 12 Most Critical Findings of the NAO Free School Report

  1. I’m concerned by the lack of joined up thinking in terms of the need for schools in areas, as opposed to opening them up willy nilly. I’m concerned by the lack of research to underpin such decisions and the lack of support for and oversight of these schools to make sure they have the greatest chance of being successful. The government needs a more robust system of decision making to open schools…or they will closing more schools and wasting more money. They also need more rigorous baseline data to assess critical aspects of school development prior to approval to open a free school and prior to opening. There is so much that is wrong with this process that it pains me to see tax payers money wasted and children’s educational lives played with.

  2. Excellent piece! The DfE is imposing schools on areas where there is absolutely no need. In our case in South Bucks, they are trying to accommodate the needs of the neighbouring authority of Slough which has a huge school place shortfall, they want to establish up to six new schools and the first two are in the Greenbelt area outside Sloughs’ borders and in South Bucks! This is reckless beyond belief. They are targeting the Greenbelt because landowners cannot normally develop Greenbelt land, so they sell it at well below market value compared to similar plots in non greenbelt areas, the DfE is ruthlessly taking advantage of this “loophole” available almost exclusively to them. Slough is a very badly run authority with a history of poor management and corruption. There is plenty of land and empty office space in Slough, there’s even an old abandoned school called Arbor vale which Slough want to knock down to build a Football stadium! The DfE is funding Faith based schools for Slough like the Sikh Faith school and the Muslim girls school, yet whilst the Sikh faith school is “temporarily” sited in South Bucks, 96% of its’ students come from outside South Bucks and only one of them is apparently not a Sikh, many of the students come from as far away as West London, Hayes and other areas up the M4 corridor. It is ludicrous to use public money to fund faith based education. Education, in a multi cultural society which wishes to understand its component ethnic and religious groups better, should, without doubt, be Secular, especially as far as public money is concerned. Our Children deserve the right to understand and get on better with each other if we want a more inclusive society. In South Bucks, there are a number of semi rural villages like ours, none of them need schools, in fact the imposition of the proposed schools on South Bucks Greenbelt in our communities to service another Authorities’ needs, will not only devastate these communities and potentially turn them into ghastly concrete suburbs of Slough, it will also deprive these communities of choice and access to the current excellent selection of schools in Bucks because of “nearest school policy” this will adversely effect nearly every student in South Bucks. The worst thing about this DfE regime, is that they have no regard what so ever for communities, Greenbelt, conservation, the environment, countryside or the choices that people have made. They are running roughshod over who ever and what ever gets in their way, they have even changed the law so they can circumnavigate local authority planning regulations by introducing the Permitted Development amendment earlier this year. There is currently no scrutiny and Micheal Gove and Lord Nash appear to be accountable to no one.

  3. Whilst I am not a supporter of the Free Schools policy, and like many government policies (not just the current coalition’s) it has been implemented with about the same amount of forethought, groundwork, and finesse as a 6 month old baby applies to emptying its bowels, it remains the case that this policy is not about the efficient provision of reliably high quality school places; the point of this policy is to create schools with a broader range of curricula, ethos, and attitude, more closely related to the particular wishes (or prejudices) of local parents. By this measure, the policy has been successful, and the question, really, is whether any related mess is an unfortunate side-effect, or an insurmountable problem with the policy. I think it is relatively easy to write off the slow take up of places in some schools, the mis-match between places and shortages, and a few million quid. The long-term future of the policy will really turn on the performance of the schools (measured directly – any collateral damage to other parts of the system will always be difficult to prove). What will matter is the number of Al-Madinahs, the number of free Schools that languish half-empty, and the Ofsted outcomes compared to the raw national average. If the numbers for the first two are low, and Free Schools continue to have an above-average proportion of Good or Outstanding reports (regardless of any nuances related to cohort), then the policy will have been a success on its own terms; if not, then it will be a failure.

    By the way, I love the link to an alternative view (well done for practicing what you preach). Also,

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