Stories + Views
Free schools are a very expensive way of dealing with rising rolls
I appeared on the Today Programme this morning talking about why the Free Schools policy will be very expensive for the taxpayer. Sancha Berg, a Today journalist, showed quite clearly that the existing funds earmarked for Free Schools capital funding, £50 million, will certainly not be enough to cover the costs of procuring and building the new schools involved. She revealed that £15 million was being used for one building — The Bolingbroke Academy which we have heard a lot about on this site — and indicated that the average cost of the 40 schools which have got the go-ahead will be approximately £5million. On the programme, Toby Young revealed that the capital costs for his building will be £12million. It’s obvious that the current budget allocated won’t be enough to cover the costs for the capital expenditure of even half of the approved free schools.
Toby Young on the programme conceded that it would be far cheaper to deal with rising rolls by expanding the existing provision. He has subsequently changed his mind, writing a Telegraph blog which claimed that because BSF funding for existing schools was costly that this would mean expanding places for schools at this moment in time would be too. The trouble with his argument is that I am not trying to defend BSF, but, instead, am at pains to point out that a prudent government could find very cost-effective ways of expanding school places without incurring excessive costs. Common sense tells us — and indeed this was something Toby conceded earlier today — that it’s far cheaper getting a few extra teachers and re-jigging time-tables to accommodate more pupils than building lots of new schools. Moreover, the very people who were responsible for the extravagance of BSF are now in charge of capital expenditure for Free Schools: the quango, Partnership for Schools. As Sancha Berg reveals on the Today programme PfS is taking a similarly extravagant approach with Free Schools: she showed clearly that Free Schools were spending more money on buildings than they had to, doing things like buying Grade II listed buildings which will be very expensive to maintain.
If we are to have a Free School policy — which I fundamentally disagree with anyway — the US and Swedish models would probably make more sense, with Free Schools being asked to raise capital funds themselves. This would mean that the taxpayer wouldn’t be saddled with the costs of setting up the school or the costs of having to close them down if they fail.
I was very critical of the waste that occurred in the last government; they wasted millions needlessly building Academies and with various other ventures. The same is happening again under this government, but the difference is that we are not enjoying an economic boom. There is no money left. The Free Schools’ policy is wasting millions on a policy which will decrease standards overall and increase social segregation.