The National Audit Office (NAO) warns that the Department for Education (DfE) needs to exert more control to contain the rising costs of the programme and learn lessons from performance issues of existing free schools in order for them to succeed.
The Free Schools Programme is thought to cost over £1.5 billion, whereas a sum of £450m was originally allocated by the Treasury in 2010.
The NAO says that providing premises for Free Schools has been more expensive than the DfE originally assumed.
It also claims that the programme prioritised speed over value for money. Under the programme, 174 Free Schools have been opened since 2010.
In contrast, the costs of building works have been lower for free schools than previous school building programmes, says the report. The reason for this is that the DfE has taken an ‘innovative’ approach to providing premises by using existing buildings, which are not traditionally used as schools.
The NAO’s analysis suggests that schools’ average construction costs have been around 45 per cent lower than costs in other school building programmes.
The report goes on to highlight performance issues of existing free schools.
Of the 25 Free Schools Ofsted inspected by the end of October 2013, four were judged to be ‘outstanding’, 14 ‘good’, ‘five ‘requires improvement’ and two ‘inadequate’ - the Al Madinah and Discovery New School.
While opening free schools is intended to address the shortage of primary places in areas of need, the report reveals that the DfE has received no applications to open new primary Free Schools in half of all areas with ‘high’ or ‘severe’ forecast need for school places.
Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, said, ‘It is still early days in the free schools programme but the Department for Education has made clear progress by opening 174 schools, many at relatively low cost. Despite limitations in information, it is also improving its approach with each successive wave of proposals but will need to tackle a rising cost trend as the programme continues to grow.
‘The programme’s success and value for money ultimately depend on how Free Schools perform but lessons must be learned systematically from problems that have arisen in a few early wave schools, especially where these have revealed failures in governance and control.’
Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), said, ‘The report clearly shows that free schools are one of Michael Gove’s pet projects and he intends to plough on with them regardless of their cost, whether they are where children need extra school places or whether they provide a good education.
‘Financial oversight has been minimal, and we fear there could be more cases like Al Madinah and Kings Science Academy, and more money wasted unless the Government gets to grip with this.
‘As a responsible Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove should be ensuring all schools have the best possible teachers, and not allowing any to have unqualified people teaching children. He should also make sure all new schools are where they are needed.
‘We hope Michael Gove pays heed to the report and learns lessons from some of the mistakes of his free school programme. But we fear he is not interested in learning from his mistakes so we will all find out the hard way that the faster free schools are opened, the less chance there is of considering if they are needed.’
Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers (NUT), said, ‘The NUT welcomes the report from the National Audit Office and the light it sheds on a process which until now the taxpayer has been funding with little or no information.
‘At a time when school budgets are being squeezed, taxpayers are entitled to know that education funding decisions are being made prudently. 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’.
‘This report will make for very uncomfortable reading for Michael Gove and the Coalition Government. We need to see an end to this folly of an education policy. The money and energy that has been spent on free schools, whose Ofsted inspection reports show a pattern of results no different from those of other schools, should have been better spent. Michael Gove needs to understand this is an idea which was flawed from the start and is unravelling before his very eyes.’