Francis Gilbert of the Local Schools Network featured on the BBC Today
programme this morning questioning why it is that the public can't have more information about the cost of free schools. According to the BBC reporter Sanchia Berg, one new free school will cost £15 million . Moreover the government is also apparently picking up the tab for buying sites, on which these schools are to be housed, a generous offer which even the last Labour government didn't feel able to make, even when it was desperate to open new academies.
As Francis pointed out, this is at a time when many schools have lost their BSF funding, and are also having their annual devolved capital budgets
slashed by around 70%, which leaves virtually no money for basic expenditure on repairs, leaky roofs etc.
The Coalition has made a great feature of its belief in a new type of 'open government' and empowering individuals at the front line, but giving people information is a crucial part of that process. Information about the existing academies' revenue funding is NOT being put into the public domain and now it appears that the cost of the free schools is also being withheld.
Even under the much maligned BSF process, there were some indicative figures about costs of building projects given in the deluge of paperwork, required by Partnership for Schools
, and accessible from local authorities under FOI.
The survival of P4S is bizarre since its profusion of consultants and covert bullying of schools and local authorities when it came to issues like the mandatory ICT contract
, was one of the least attractive features of a policy which had at its heart noble aims.
Now P4S is working hand in glove with a different government that seems very keen to stress that its new schools will cost less than Labour's, but won't they be straight with the figures. A quick change of heart by ministers could rectify this perceived secrecy:
1. They should release for each academy in England the equivalent financial information, in the same format, to the School Spending data that is available on the DfE web site
for other state schools.
2. They should also make clear what is in the departmental budget for free schools over the next three years and how money is being allocated over the next twelve months ( when eight free schools are due to open) for the purchase or rental of sites, the building of new schools, or the refurbishment of existing premises.
Then parents, teachers, governors and pupils, many of whom will now have to get used to leaky roofs, portacabins and obsolete ICT, will be able to decide whether this government's priorities for quirky, independent state funded schools promoted by parent , faith and odd ball religious groups, are the what they want or whether, as Francis explained this morning, a better use of public money, to meet both demand and need, might be to expand and re-furbish existing local schools.