Only two LAs would greatly support a new Free School to meet demand for extra places, NAO found

Janet Downs's picture
Many Local Authorities (LAs), particularly in London, face a shortfall in the number of primary school places. Despite this, only 2 out of 122* LAs would support a new free school to a “great extent” to solve this problem, a National Audit Office (NAO) survey found.

50 LAs would support a new free school to “some extent” to provide extra places. 71, therefore, would not.

So, what were the solutions favoured to a “great extent”? These were (in order of popularity):

1 Increased numbers of forms of entry.

2 Construction of new, permanent extensions.

3= “Bulge” classes/Installing temporary accommodation.

5 Opening a new school.

LAs are not able to direct academies and free schools to expand, the NAO stressed. The first four options, therefore, would be difficult if academies and free schools refused to cooperate with LAs’ expansion plans. This problem was highlighted in a 2012 report which warned that the academies programme (and free schools are academies) could make it difficult for LAs to manage the supply of school places.

LAs choosing the fifth option, opening a new school, are also prevented from opening a new community school, the NAO said, because the Government has stipulated that any new school should be an academy or free school.

Free schools weren’t primarily supposed to be about filling a shortfall of places, the NAO wrote. Rachel Wolf, ex-director of the New Schools Network (NSN), contradicts this: “Free schools are set up for two reasons – to help underperforming children or to provide places where there currently are none.”

£1.7 billion of capital funding has been allocated for free schools up to 2014/15, said the NAO. Its analysis of the capacity of the 45 second-wave free schools suggests these could provide up to 24,500 new places but only 8,800 of these are in primary schools. The NAO estimated that 58% of these 24,500 places were in LAs with a possible future shortfall. This estimation is at odds with the fact that most second-wave free schools were not set up in areas identified by NSN as needing extra places.

So, despite the Government’s praise of free schools and its mandatory insistence that new schools should be either academies or free schools, LAs seem reluctant to consider the free school option when deciding how to provide extra places. The Department for Education (DfE) has increased capital funding to 2014/15 to over £4.3 billion for new school places, the NAO reports. This is for the whole of England. But £1.7 billion capital funding has been allocated to free schools (a tiny fraction of England’s state maintained school) up to 2014/15. And we must remember that the DfE overspent £1 billion on the academies programme. It would appear that the DfE is diverting money to its pet projects to the detriment of other types of school.

The National Audit Office plans to look at the establishment of free schools in a separate NAO review.


*The National Audit Office used a base size of 122-125. For table showing how LAs intended to provide extra places see page 29 of the NAO report.

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