Free schools in England set for extra £600m

Sarah's picture
by Sarah
An extra £600m is being found (from who knows where) to allow more free schools to be created.

Until free schools are restricted to those areas with real demographic and social need this appears to be a monumental waste of money being targeted to the wrong places in the wrong way.

How can the government justify spending this money on Michael Gove's vanity project at a time of such financial constraint?
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Fiona Millar's picture
Sat, 26/11/2011 - 19:22

This is quite extraordinary and shocking , given the urgent need for investment in so many maintained schools that lost BSF funding. I think we are still waiting for a clear response to the Government's own (James) Review into capital spending. It really does appear that our schools don't matter.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 27/11/2011 - 08:58

George Osborne will make a statement about the £600 million for 100 free schools on Tuesday during his Autumn statement on the economy. 12 of these schools are expected to be specialist Maths schools for 16-18 year olds. These schools "will be the subject of a special application process outside the regular free school application process..."

It would be interesting to know what this "special application process" is, who will oversee this procedure and the justification for allowing proposed schools to sidetrack existing regulations.

Rachel Wolf of the New Schools Network (NSN) is on record as saying that she believes too few free schools have been approved and accused the DfE of being "overcautious". Perhaps bending the rules will be one way of ensuring that the number of free schools established before the end of this Parliament reaches the target of 650* set by the Government.

*"Education: Lesson in progress", FT 1/9/11 (available to subscribers only)

Nigel Ford's picture
Sun, 27/11/2011 - 11:58

Are these specialist Maths schools for 16-18 year olds going to go well beyond the A'level syllabus and the 1st year course at university? Does this mean that when these students arrive at university they're going to repeat a lot of the work again, or go straight into the 2nd year?

I think we should be told.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 27/11/2011 - 14:55

The provision of these Maths schools post-16 raises numerous questions. What will the Maths sixth-form colleges do that sixth-forms teaching Maths A level don't already do? What size will these Maths super-sixths be? What other subjects will they offer? Will they offer other subjects such as science, technology, statistics as well or just stick to pure and applied Maths? Will they downgrade humanities subjects? There's going to be twelve of them dotted around England so presumably they will each have a large catchment area. Will transport be available for students far away and if so will local authorities subsidise it? Will students be expected to live-in?

Has anybody actually thought this through?

Jake's picture
Mon, 28/11/2011 - 11:34

The £2 billion PSBP was announced several months ago to address those schools in most need of repair as am sure you know Fiona - or at least you should know given that you are meant to be a journalist specialising in education. Given the state of the economy, the debts run up by Labour, the crushing need to meet even 'basic need' pupil places over the next few years (why did Labour not manage proactively to cope with this pupil bulge in the system - you had 13 years in power?) and the extent of school repair work required, I think the current government should be applauded for pulling rabbits out of hats in the current climate.

Fiona Millar's picture
Mon, 28/11/2011 - 13:23

Unfortunately at a local level, very little money is coming through to schools . There is still no response to James and schools devolved capital funding has been slashed. Yet £600 million can be found for free schools. Priorities are clearly for the few rather than the many.

Jake's picture
Mon, 28/11/2011 - 13:57

'No response to James'? The initial response to James was in July and can be found here:

The PSBP does not report until next month (Dec) which will detail how the £2 billion will be spent on essential repairs. Again, I do not know why any of this stuff should be new to you or are you having a wind up? Its your job to stay on top of this stuff isn't it? I cant imagine the Guardian pays its journalists to be off the pace.

And of course capital funding has been slashed in trying to clear up the mess Brown and Balls left. Back in the day you people in Nr 10 should have been all over what was going next door at Nr 11 rather than being obsessed with what the red tops were printing and trying to spin that. New Labour will go down in history as a triumph of style (spin?) over substance. You wasted the mandate in 1997 and now blame the current bunch in office for clearing up your mess as well as having to deal with the Eurozone imploding - not only has the proverbial horse bolted, its now flat on its back dead its been that long since the stable door should have been slammed shut on Dumb & Dumber in Nr 11 on your watch.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 28/11/2011 - 14:28

Jake - you seem to have some knowledge of the The Priority Schools Building Programme (PSBP) which was discussed on this site back in July (see link below). I say "discuss" but actually the information coming from the DfE was so confusing that is wasn't clear what the money was for. There seemed to be £500 million to fund extra school places which has now already been allocated, I believe. Then there was a separate announcement about £2 billion. My understanding was that this £2 billion was for schools in a bad state of repair but which could also demonstrate a demand for places (thereby leaving crumbling schools with falling rolls to deteriorate further). Schools had from 09:00 on Monday 3 October 2011 until 12:00 on Friday 14 October 2011 to submit their applications. The £2 billion wasn't announced until July (correct me if I'm wrong) just before schools broke up. This means schools had only about three to four weeks to get their bids together. I think (again, correct me if I'm wrong) that schools had to present some sort of building survey to corroborate the need for repairs, so if a building survey wasn't already in place then the time-scale for commissioning one and putting in a bid would be even tighter.

Also I think that the £2 billion is privately-funded (PFI) and ties in the schools for contracts for up to 27 years (or thereabouts, I'm not quite sure).

As I said, you seem to know a bit more about this. It would, therefore, be helpful if you could throw some light on the matter in a calm manner instead of indulging in rather hysterical rhetoric. It would be helpful, I think you'd agree, if the DfE could have announced the funding (£500 million, £2 billion and so on) in one statement. I don't think your link above mentions the £2 billion.

Jake's picture
Mon, 28/11/2011 - 14:39

Full details on the PSBP can be found here:

The first DfE link above details the £2 billion announcement.

'Hysterical rhetoric'? I'll leave that to others on this site. But putting some recent historical perpective on the current hole we are in is in my opinion useful but you can deny/ignore all that if you wish. Fiona knows full well what I am getting at from her time at Nr 10.

Fiona Millar's picture
Mon, 28/11/2011 - 15:31

I do know a bit about this as I had a meeting with my own local authority this morning on the question of future capital funds. This PSBP money is, as the website states, for schools in a very bad state of repair. The criteria are quite clear and many schools that require capital investment either because of condition or school improvement needs, but do not meet the bar the government has set, cannot benefit from it.

Meanwhile the devolved capital funding for schools, which was unrelated to BSF, has been slashed and is now virtually non existent. We have been told to expect £27K next year for a secondary school with 900 pupils (on a very cramped site).That money will have to cover everything from IT, building repairs and emergencies. There appears to be nothing more available at the moment. Thousands of schools will be negatively affected by this. The government has NO vision for schools beyond its favoured few. There clearly are funds available for those "chosen ones" - these are political priorities unrelated to what the last Labour government did or didn't do.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 28/11/2011 - 15:37

Jake - thank you for the link. The DfE is being particularly unhelpful in expected those wanting to view the documents to save them first. However, it confirmed many fears:

Only schools which can demonstrate pupil demand will be considered. Hard luck if a school is falling down but is not full.

The DfE said it couldn’t announce the scheme before the start of the summer holidays because of the “considerable amount of preparation”. However, it thought that the tight time scale for schools to respond was “sufficient”. Schools full of children obviously don’t need time for “considerable amount of preparation” but officials who do nothing else apparently do.

Schools will need to have surveys done unless one had been done in the previous two years thereby adding to the stress with such a tight deadline.

A privately financed project will not be value for money unless it replaces 70% of the school’s floor area. So, unless the school needs practically rebuilding, the money won’t be available. And if the school is listed – hard luck.

Schools won’t get a say in the contract because this is “a matter for the central negotiating team”.

Schools are expected to contribute £50-£60 for facilities management and £10-£20 for utilities per square metre, per year, excluding VAT, and subject to inflation for approx 25 years. Schools won’t be allowed to provide their own “soft services ie cleaning, catering” so will have no control on the standard of cleanliness or the quality of food.

It’s unclear what happens if the firm winning the centrally-procured contract provides an inferior service.

Fiona Millar's picture
Mon, 28/11/2011 - 16:21

I thought the Tories were against PFI and for schools having control over their budgets?! PFI takes control away from schools and its use was one of the often repeated charges against Gordon Brown.

Jake's picture
Mon, 28/11/2011 - 15:46

But that is a big part of the current problem - ie, you simply cannot disconnect what went on under Gordon Brown with what is happening today. There is a direct causal link between the two. Brown spent his time running around re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic while the ship was sinking. There is less money available now largely as a result of his actions. If you look at the Tory paper on education funding before they came to power it assumed top slicing BSF as was to fund additional pupil places. The trouble was Osborne then got the keys to HMT and soon found Liam Byrne's note in his top drawer. We all know what happened next.

Fiona Millar's picture
Mon, 28/11/2011 - 16:10

Get back to the point. There is money available for free schools because that is a political priority for this government. The plight of the majority of schools is not. If our situation was of concern to Michael Gove he would have responded decisively by now to the James Review.Instead of which he has set up another consultation ( kicked into the long grass) while investment in the pet projects continues apace.

Fiona Millar's picture
Mon, 28/11/2011 - 16:21

By the way it looks to most people out here as though George Osborne is now busying himself on the upper deck while the ship sinks.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 28/11/2011 - 17:13

The Tories were very critical of PFI even though it was Major's idea in the first place. But Mr Gove claims he's putting in stringent controls although what exactly they are I don't know (does anyone?). A TES article in June wrote that a source involved in the Government's school-rebuilding initiative said: "There is a massive need for capital investment at the moment, and if 100 schools can be built using PFI, then you are creating additional money - freeing up resources - to fund free schools."

"It is unlikely to be used to fund academies because they are part of their own framework and are funded through a direct grant."

Mr Gove told TES: "Following Sebastian James' proposals for a new system for managing capital expenditure and the wider reform of arms-length bodies, I have decided the time is right to bring together, in a single agency [Education Funding Agency], the allocation and management of revenue and capital funding, including the delivery of capital programmes."

So existing schools which take up this PFI offer will be locked into PFI contracts even if they're converter academies who are supposed to have control over their budgets, but academies built through direct grant presumably won't be tied up for 25 years. And it appears from the DfE insider that rebuilding crumbling schools through PFI will "free up" money to pay for free schools.

Sarah's picture
Mon, 28/11/2011 - 19:12

The Priority School Building Programme is only for schools which need at least 70% rebuilding. It is not funding which can be used to address repairs across a number of schools in an area. A number of local authorities decided against entering the programme because the financial risks were too great - the application window was the very same week that NHS hospitals were saying the cost of PFI contracts could see them close down - and not long after there was a very scathing Treasury report on the costs of PFI. There is every sign that Academies and Free Schools are having capital thrown at them whilst the majority of schools are being left with very little. It will be very interesting to see whether this £600m is simply a repackaging of the basic need funding which we'd expect to see from 2012 to deal with the shortage of school places. My guess is that it will only be for entirely new schools and therefore will go exclusively to free schools rather than for extra classrooms at existing maintained schools.

Sarah's picture
Mon, 28/11/2011 - 19:15

There has been no response to the consultation on the James Review which closed in October - we don't as yet know which parts of the James recommendations are going to be implemented. Except the centralised condition surveys and database for which Prior Information Notices were published DURING the consultation. So much for listening to people's views!

Jake's picture
Tue, 29/11/2011 - 10:55

Fiona - in terms of Osborne and deck chairs, deep down you know that is not true. As and when the bond markets go after Osborne then you may have a point. Until that point we should all be grateful that we have not joined the likes of Greece etc.

Sarah - so the PSBP only applies to schools that are in excess of 70%? Surely that is a good thing because scarce financial resource is being focused on schools in the most need of help. I don't understand your logic that implies a school in less need of repair should be prioritised over a school where the majority of the buildings need repair. If the £600 miilion is helping to meet 'basic need' provision then that too is a good thing - or do you want kids left on the pavement because all their local schools are full? As for PFI it is far from perfect which is exactly why Osborne is looking at different PPP models in relation to risks and tax payer costs to transfer such risk. But you cant have it both ways can you? Either you want to see the school estate repaired using PFI sourced private capital or the schools are left to literally rot because the current PFI model is not perfect - which do you want? As most sane people now accept, adding to the public sector debt mountain is simply not an option unless we want to go the same way as Greece. So I'm afraid for the moment an imperfect PFI model is reluctantly the lesser of the 3 evils - increase debt, use PFI or do nothing.

Rosemary Mann's picture
Tue, 29/11/2011 - 19:52

I'm afraid what depresses me about all of this is the lack of concerted opposition from the well, Opposition. I dont hear a lot really being brought to the publics attention in the way that it should as this is indeed a gross misuse of public funds whilst the overall school estate crumbles and needs expansion and remodelling. What is needed is less on here preaching to the mostly converted and more of getting the message out there.

Adam's picture
Wed, 30/11/2011 - 18:41

In response to Janet's questions, the maths free schools will supposedly be in located in cities and will just offer a diet of mathematics, mathematics with chemistry, mathematics with physics or mathematics with computer science.

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