The government must tell us the true costs of free schools

Francis Gilbert's picture

On the day of the first Free Schools Conference in London, it's worth raising some issues that probably will be skipped over at the various talks by the great and the good.

If you look at my previous post, you will see that I've made my own estimates about the costs of free schools based on a "linear regression" I've derived from looking at the government's figures for LA schools, where I've compared the number of pupils against the total expenditure. Obviously, this is not going to provide the public with a totally reliable figure of free school costs, but it does, at least, show that schools with fewer than 700 pupils will be significantly more expensive than bigger schools. My analysis shows, admittedly in a fairly basic way, that having a government policy which encourages the setting-up of small schools is fiscal madness when there are spare places in existing schools.

The chief problem for my calculations and many other ones is this: most free schools simply don't know how many pupils they are going to admit in the coming year. The public has a right to know some basic things about these schools:

The number of pupils they are admitting
The projected setting-up costs

The government funds the schools are receiving and will receive in the coming year(s)


At the moment, we have no solid idea about what the DfE's projected costs per pupils are for these schools. I have now found the "reckoner" on a page updated on 28th January, which estimates the funds a free school will have next year but it's unreliable because capital costs and "start up" costs, which are entirely up to the DfE's discretion, are not divulged. As stated before, key information like numbers of pupils are not available as well. In other words, the key costs are not available.
I certainly won't apologise for making some informed guesses about the costs per pupil, based on the figures we currently have. The linear regression reveals that setting up these schools in the first five years will be much more expensive than putting them into schools which still have surplus places.

It's clear even looking at the most rudimentary of calculations that we need to consolidate and improve the resources we have, rather than wasting millions upon setting up schools which will be absurdly expensive and may well lead to declining standards.

It's time that the government told us the true costs of the free schools experiment.

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Gerry Newton's picture
Sat, 29/01/2011 - 10:36

Are all policies to be judged on immediate cost alone, and take no account of the benefits that might flow from such expenditure? In that case, presumably you will welcome tge changes to housing benefit, for instance.

There is a good deal of evidence that small schools do better when cost-benefit is considered.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Sat, 29/01/2011 - 11:39

I'd be very interested in seeing this cost-benefit analysis about small schools, Gerry. Do you have a reference? Obviously, cost is one factor of a number when judging the effectiveness of policies but we definitely need to have this information for free schools, in the same way have this info for LA schools.

Andy Smithers's picture
Sat, 29/01/2011 - 13:47

Francis - are you comparing apples and pears again. Did you do a similar analsis of how the BSF monies were to be allocated and whether they offered value for money.
Two of the schools in my area have managed to secure their BSF funding of £40 million and £30 Million - for this we get one new form of entry in each school. Yes the schools need repairs/rebuilds but value for money ?
In comparison the amounts (albeit not official), that I have seen quoted for free schools appear to be value for money considering they are providing a lot more new places.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Sat, 29/01/2011 - 13:53

I would like to see the amounts you've seen Andy. As I said in my previous post, unless the free schools are doing something that actively bucks the trend of small schools costing more, then they will be very expensive. The trouble is we have to apples and oranges when all we've got is data on LA schools. I am perfectly willing to revise my estimates if the hard data shows that educating pupils at free schools is cheaper than at LA schools; as yet all we can do is use existing figures in the public domain to make our estimates. I have put a Freedom of Information request in for this info.

Andy Smithers's picture
Sat, 29/01/2011 - 14:34

The amounts I have quoted for BSF are in the public domain. What I am saying is that I am yet to see an amount mentioned for free schools that approaches the vast amounts of monies promised in the BSF programme.
What would make more sense is for you to compare the costs (readily available) in the BSF programme against those for free schools.
This would get a better comparison of value for money rather than comparing the cost of setting up a free school and comparing it with the running costs of an existing school.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Sun, 30/01/2011 - 20:07

I haven't factored in building costs/capital expenditure into my linear regression, it's based only on annual expenditure. The main point that the regression shows is that small schools are expensive to run. Most free schools will be small and not very economical. That's the key point.

Fiona Millar's picture
Sun, 30/01/2011 - 20:35

There is no capital expenditure any more!! And if academies and free schools do still get devolved capital, we will never know since their budgets aren't published.

Nigel Ford's picture
Sun, 30/01/2011 - 20:34

In these economically stringent times when departmental budgets are being cut or not growing in real terms, it is vital that economies of scale which larger schools can deliver through decreased unit costs should be calculated in the cost benefit analysis against free schools.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Sun, 30/01/2011 - 20:44

Nigel is absolutely right and put the key point that the govt MUST consider at this moment. There simply isn't the money to start setting up lots of new schools at the moment; it's fiscal madness and will not improve standards. We need to use and improve the existing resources we have. That is what is best for our children, best for the Treasury, best for our country.

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