Free schools are a very expensive way of dealing with rising rolls

Francis Gilbert's picture
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.
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Urban Head's picture
Mon, 07/02/2011 - 21:52

The actual cost of the Bolingbroke is estimated within the DES as £35million. When told the Minister, he only likes to be called this, was told 6 months ago he was rather shocked. If they are declaring £28million at the start, before start up costs etc then the estimate must have been correct. Still think of all the school fees the promoters will save and then be able to reinvest in the economy

Alison's picture
Mon, 07/02/2011 - 21:53

The Today programme articles and the debate did a really good job in exposing the double standards going in relation to school budgets and free school budgets. But this is too important a policy for the Government to let it fail. Our children in our schools will be sacrificed to pay for the Free Schools experiment

Francis Gilbert's picture
Mon, 07/02/2011 - 22:02

Thanks to Urban Head for this comment. I'd be interested to know your sources, you could email me at in the first instance if you want to. If this is true, this is a truly shocking amount, as clearly the Minister himself felt! Again, we need real transparency here, with a clear itemised list of existing spend, and projected costs. Yes, Alison I think the Today programme did a great job, but what is worrying is that it has taken a Radio Programme to start to scratch at the truth behind the costs. We need transparency!

Laura Brown's picture
Mon, 07/02/2011 - 22:32

I am shocked by the cost of the Bolingbroke renovations despite my familiarity with this proposal. The fact that a total of £28m is being spent to create 4 or 5 forms of entry makes it even more surprising that no cost-benefit analysis has been carried out to compare with alternative options to expand existing schools. Or, indeed, cost-benefit analysis on alternative sites - is it a coincidence that the proposed site is very close to where many of those involved in the school campaign own homes and businesses? What incentive did the parent team have to look for cheaper premises potentially further away from them given that apparently the
council and government are not imposing limits on what they are prepared to pay or requiring proper comparisons to be made?

There is a consultation currently advertised on the Wandsworth council website to expand Battersea Park School (less than 2 miles from the new school site) by 1 form of entry (for apparently no advertised building cost). I have heard from other sources that another form of entry could be added without major building costs. So, potentially half of the new places could instead be created for very little investment?

Given the desire to save money, surely the government could be a bit more creative about how to make the most out of the schools that already exist before wasting money on more? Toby Young himself complains about the high cost of new schools under BSF - the average cost he quotes is £25-30m - that'll be the cost of the Bolingbroke Academy then!

Fiona Millar's picture
Tue, 08/02/2011 - 09:04

Yes and I note from the Financial Times this morning that Palingswick House , the final destination of the West London Free School, and a property that currently belongs to Hammersmith and Fulham Council is about to be sold with the West London Free School as a 'likely buyer'? Can this be correct? I had assumed that the council was donating the site to the free school. If it is correct, how much does it cost and who is buying it on behalf of the school? If it is not correct what is the opportunity cost to the council and thus to other local education or voluntary sector projects?

Tom's picture
Tue, 08/02/2011 - 08:25

"But this is too important a policy for the Government to let it fail." long as Michael Gove is Education Secretary. As time passes, however, the probability of him doing something requiring his removal approaches 1 (lying about something, covering up and being found out, I suspect - he's already got form for being less than open and transparent, which flies in the face of Coalition policy generally).

The best thing to do, therefore, is continue to expose the hypocrisy of the reverse Robin Hood aspect to the policy - from what I've seen of Toby's reaction to things, he's well aware of the negative PR of 'wait a minute, you're cutting my child's school to pay for subsidised private education for the children of a man in a house worth *how* much?', along with digging out the real costs.

Jon De Maria's picture
Tue, 08/02/2011 - 16:12

As one of the parents behind the Bolingbroke school, I can assure Urban Head that he is talking cobblers in relation to the £35 million. Indeed the whole of Urban Head's post is a nasty cynical little cheap shot which has zero basis in reality.

And Laura with her usual 'I am shocked' routine is also getting tiring. The cost of the land is about £13 million - this has been paid by the council to the NHS and there is no net loss from the taxpayers pot. Indeed the money will be used by the NHS to improve health care in the borough.

The refurb cost which the DfE will fund has not been agreed yet but is likely to be less than the quoted £15 million - a figure at least half of the 'like for like' cost of a typical academy under BSF. The refurb cost was what Toby was referring to Laura - so at least try and understand what you are talking about before your 'shock horror' postings. And if Laura is looking for her 'cost benefit' analysis then try this - we will provide 950 places for about £15,800 per pupil (using the £15 mill fig). The two BSF schemes that survived in Wandsworth will cost about £159,800 per extra pupil - ie, £144,000 more per pupil than our school. And I am not even sure these two BSF schools are going to provide the increased pupil numbers stated in the original Wandsworth SfC doc - so the cost per pupil will be even higher.

Finally Laura really should back up her statement above that BPS can provide an extra 2FE 'without major building costs' that she happened to hear from 'other sources'. Really?

Most of what is posted on this site is no better than tabloid gossip or innuendo. But if it makes you feel better about yourselves that you are doing something worthwhile then good luck to you all.

Fiona Millar's picture
Tue, 08/02/2011 - 17:01

The £13 million to buy the Bolingbroke site could have been spent on other schools which have lost both BSF and devolved capital funding this year, so there is an opportunity cost to the rest of the local education community and to other children who won't be going to the Bolingbroke School.

When you are able to tot up the cost of the site and the re-furb - having been right through the BSF process until the very last minute (when the funding for our school was withdrawn) I can assure you that there will be indicative figures around somewhere - I think you will find it will cost considerably more than what was spent on many of the BSF schools, most of which were re-furbished and NOT re - built. I believe only about 20% of BSF related to new build.

One reason why people , especially those who feel rightly angry about losing capital funding for their own schools, are left to speculate, is that the government seems very reluctant to be open about the costs of this very bad policy. I wonder why?

Since Hammersmith Council met last night to decide about the sale of Palingswick House, I assume someone there knows what it is worth?

Jon De Maria's picture
Tue, 08/02/2011 - 16:32

This gets even better.

I have just clicked on Laura's link above to the borough website about expanding BPS - which in her post above Laura tries to skew upwards to a possible 2FE addition, so that "potentially half of the new places" from our school could instead be added at BPS for "very little investment" according to her "sources".

Here is the reality check - what Laura fails to mention is that BPS is only consulting on an extra 30 places (not 60). In tandem, another school (Elliot) is reducing its intake by 30 places. So thats a net gain of precisely 'zero' pupil places.

So ask yourself this - how on earth can Laura extrapolate the reality of zero extra places to imply above that an extra 75 places could be added for little capital cost at BPS? Its a joke.

Laura Brown's picture
Tue, 08/02/2011 - 17:06

Jon - You seem to be rather unreasonably questioning my integrity as ever but I am willing to answer your points as best I can.

I am very clear in my comment above that BPS is consulting on adding 1 form of entry but that other sources have suggested that another could be added. It is unclear to me whether your school is actually going to have 4 or 5 forms of entry as Council reports seemed (to me) to suggest that only 4 forms could be provided on the site so I don't think it is unreasonable to suggest that 60 places could be half of that. If it is 5 forms of entry, then I stand corrected that BPS could only provide 40% of your places.

I thought Toby Young said that the average cost of new schools within BSF was £25-30m but I'd need to go back and relisten and life is definitely too short to do that. Apologies if that was inaccurate - perhaps you could have another listen and confirm for us?

It is quite obvious that BSF funding was to cover a significant rebuild of whole schools for all their existing pupils (and indeed associated community groups) - not just to create new places. On that basis, Burntwood school will cost £41m for the 10 forms of entry at the school compared with £28m for 4 or 5 forms of entry at Bolingbroke. Obviously, this is incredibly crude analysis but as no-one seems willing to carry out detailed cost-benefit analysis either at the Council or central government level then these sort of crude estimates become necessary to have any sense of what is happening.

Given the parlous state of many local school building which have lost their BSF funding, it seems some local people would have preferred analysis of whether £13m was best spent on a new school or, if the council has this cash floating around, other schools. Had the NHS sold the site to someone else, they would have received the money anyway and the Council would have had £13m to spend on our existing schools.

Finally, I hadn't heard about Elliott reducing places presumably in response to falling pupil numbers (perhaps you could confirm)? Given that your campaign is predicated on the suggestion that many more school places are needed in Wandsworth, this appears to be evidence against your scheme?

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 08/02/2011 - 17:35

"Most of what is posted on this site is tabloid gossip and innuendo". Not correct. Everytime I have posted something I have provided links as evidence. If I have posted something which is later found to be erroneous I have corrected it immediately, which is more than the DfE does. The discounted OECD UK 2000 figures are still quoted by the Government even though these figures are known to be misleading. Mr Gove lied recently about Pupil Referral Units. I have just heard him lie to Parliament in the debate about the Education Bill when he said that Finland was going to reform their education system - this was to justify his proposed reforms of the UK system. Finland, as we all know from the OECD report about their excellent system, gained their supremacy after years of slow, careful and measured change. Finland has no desire to change. However, I shall check with Hansard tomorrow to make sure I'm correct.

Jon De Maria's picture
Tue, 08/02/2011 - 18:29

I work in construction and property - that is my job. Not in a bank. So likewise I know a little of what I am talking about on capex costs. And something you all need to do is look at figures on a 'like for like' basis. The 'opportunity cost' argument can be made about every single penny spent of public money and personally I think spending it on additional school places where they are needed is actually a good thing. Your counter argument above Laura about BSF also covering existing pupils beggars belief and defies all logic based on a 'like for like' unit rate analysis. Plus what have schools actually been doing with their R&M budgets each year? And don't get me started on bulge classes and over sized schools being the solution due to a fiscal deficit created by Gordon Brown and his faithful sidekick Ed Balls back in the day. Oh the irony! You are all to keen to throw gossip about as fact and then only apologise when someone pulls you up on it. If you don't know what you are talking about or have to make wild assumptions then you are better off not posting at all but if you are all having fun doing what you are doing then good for you.

Fiona Millar's picture
Tue, 08/02/2011 - 18:48

In my experience most schools spend their devolved capital prudently on repairs, re-furbishment and ICT. Indeed anyone can look at the DFE website now to see how we do it, although we are not allowed to see the same information for academies.
BSF also provided new places in existing schools in projects supported by their local communities. There was waste in the BSF procurement process but I note that the real culprits, Partnership for Schools, are now involved with free schools so have no faith that they will be a lean and mean as is being suggested. Plenty of ' consultants' on the scene already and lots of cash going into the hands of edu-companies, but without the transparency that the BSF local authority link at least required.
If you don't know how much your school is going to cost, how can you be so sure it will provide value for money? And if you don't know, why should anyone else believe that it will, especially if they have had dealings with P4S.

Laura Brown's picture
Tue, 08/02/2011 - 19:04

Do you know for sure that it is not possible for BPS to expand by 2 forms with limited investment? If you do, it would be helpful to know. If you don't, would you agree that that could potentially be a rather cost effective approach to providing 2 of your 4 or 5 forms?

Stephen Smith's picture
Tue, 08/02/2011 - 20:45

There's a piece on Steve Baker's (MP for Wycombe) blog, written by his researcher Tim Hewish which mentions Francis's contribution to Today several times.

A couple of snippets which intrigued me (among many)

" ... schools in Sweden and USA raise their own money for building costs, in Britain we do not. This is something which [we ?] should, as Conservatives, strongly consider. Abroad, they are run for profit: businesses are allowed to run and generate wealth for these schools. More should be done to push this angle."

Schools for profit ? I hope not !

We also get the jiggery-pokery on OFSTED results :-

"Also another sleight of hand is when Mr. Gilbert says 86% of schools according to Ofsted are good or outstanding. This isn’t true. In fact, 86% of the last cohort of schools measured that were good or outstanding, this is very different, as not all schools get an Ofsted inspection every year."

Quite - every three years is about the average - except it's currently proposed to reduce this considerably for the majority of schools - so why it should matter to Mr Hewish is a mystery to me. Hardly a sleight of hand - unlike the closing few sentences of the article -

"What about the billions Labour have spent to see just 15.6% of GCSE pupils achieving A*-C grades in the combinations of core academic subjects which make up our English Baccalaureate. In 2009/10, only 22% of pupils were entered for exams in those subjects"

The so called English Baccalaureate subjects may or may not be a good combination of subjects - but they're not the subjects that schools thought they were going to be judged on, and not ones which were encouraged to be taken up by the Labour government. A little bit like getting to 90 minutes in a football match and then saying "We're not counting goals today, we're counting throw-ins !"

Still with only 22% entered, that 15.6% presumably represents a 71% success rate. Not bad for starters I'd say.

Jon De Maria's picture
Wed, 09/02/2011 - 00:19

Fiona, if in your experience most schools spend their devolved capital prudently on repairs and refurbishment, then why do we hear so much about leaking roofs or the like? One can only assume that given the prudent use you state of devolved capital these types of problems are in reality few and far between - but they still of course make great headlines. I am also glad that given this prudent use of devolved capital, that free schools will in fact not be taking away from essential R&M works as clearly such works - both planned and unplanned - are already being managed very well by most schools.

In terms of our own capital refurb budget, what I actually said was that no refurb cost had been agreed to date - which is true. That is different from draft estimates of budget cost, which have all been below the £15 million quoted to date for our refurb works.

Fiona Millar's picture
Wed, 09/02/2011 - 09:24

Even under the old devolved capital allocations some projects were simply too expensive which is why schools were so excited by BSF, in spite of its administrative shortcomings. Annual funding for devolved capital for all maintained schools is being cut by around 70% for the foreseeable future so now we have no BSF and virtually no devolved capital . Please see this post for the figures available on the DFE website. People are understandably bitter about this especially when they see the resources making their way into other schools, some of which may not even be needed. I find the lack of interest/empathy shown by the free school proposers towards other schools both shocking and predictable. The government is encouraging autonomy and competition and has made it quite clear that if this means other schools fail or close, the market is doing its work. Some of the comments that appear on this site make it clear that proponents of free schools share that view . However I believe the school system nationally will be worse off for this approach and that there will be casualties, often the poorest children that the government claims it wants to help.

Jon De Maria's picture
Wed, 09/02/2011 - 09:46

As usual Fiona you are moving the goalposts. My point was that no matter how little or otherwise the devolved capital budget per school has been in recent years, surely one of the first planned R&M items to be looked after would be the building fabric? In other words, repairing a hole in a roof is not in the scheme of things expensive and should have been easily funded as a priority item. Basically there should have been no reason why pictures of leaking school roofs with buckets underneath appeared on TV. One can only assume that although R&M monies were available in the past - in spite of what you said about prudent use - these funds have been mismanaged due to a simple inability to plan for essential repair works in years gone by. Technical analysis such a simple life cycle costing techniques could have prevented holes in roofs. I take your point about BSF exepectations but that is not relevant to schools carrying out essential or minor repair items as part of ongoing/routine R&M works is it? And please don't resort to sweeping generalisations about 'lack of empathy' or whatever which have no relevance (or factual basis) to the original point I was making - you just show up the weakness of your argument. Trying to say that those of us who support free schools don't care for the 'poorest children' is just a cheap shot from someone who should know better.

Fiona Millar's picture
Wed, 09/02/2011 - 11:05

The prudent course of action for many schools expecting BSF funds ( and planning for them for several years) was NOT to undertake costly building works which would then be either repeated or undone. This compounds the problem many of us now face.

Jon De Maria's picture
Wed, 09/02/2011 - 11:37

Apologies Fiona if I didn't make my point clearly enough - which is that patching a leak in a school roof for example would have been neither costly nor difficult to plan for given that schools had budgets as you recognise for just this type of essential R&M. It is not an argument for example to say that a roof repair should not be repaired 'next month because the whole roof might be renewed in 3 or 4 years time'. Or to service a boiler or whatever the R&M work might have been. Your point as I said above is valid in the wider context of BSF and the larger scale scope of works but not in relation to essential ongoing R&M works in any given year. There was simply no reason to show pictures of buckets under a leaking school roof when BSF was axed - the roof should have been repaired well before that.

Laura Brown's picture
Wed, 09/02/2011 - 11:57

As a novice on this building work stuff, I just wanted to ask about an example from the primary school where I am a governor to try to understand the issues better. The school needs new windows (for various reasons which impact the good running of the school) and has been told to add itself to a long list of other schools in the area needing new windows as such significant expenditure could not be managed from its own funds. Does this mean that the repair and maintenance budget has not been used properly historically (by my school or the many others on the list)? Or would it be normal to add yourself to a list in this way? Thanks Jon!

Urban Head's picture
Sun, 13/02/2011 - 09:42

I can assure you the figure is correct. Having led the teams that have created 2 new schools in the last 20 years I can also unpick how 28million on building does not include a huge number of other costs. PfS, YPLA and ARK are all working to deliver a political objective that needs a great deal more tranparency.

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