MANAGING EXPECTATIONS ON FREE SCHOOLS
Slow take- up hampered by shortages of capital and sites
Its been apparent for some time that the Government is managing expectations down on Free schools. For a combination of reasons the Free schools initiative (as opposed to the Academies initiative) is not taking off in the way that was anticipated. There are two main problems. Shortage of capital, and shortage of sites. As the Times Educational Supplement reported last week , around half free school bidders are still seeking sites. Katherine Birbalsingh is just one of many who has failed to find a site for her south London bid, and has had to delay opening until next year. Gove once spoke of a “superb new school in every community”. But last year, the department for education – approved just 79. DFE briefed journalists that this was because they had tight vetting procedures, to ensure that only strong bids that could be justified were getting approved. For example before entering into a funding agreement, each proposal for a new free school is subject to an analysis of what the likely impact of establishing the additional school would be on maintained schools, academies, etc in the area in which the additional school is (or is proposed to be) situated. And ,of course, there have been some wacky organisations making bids who have to be vetted out. But this is only part of the story. A more prosaic reason was that there was just not enough capital around and some of the first Free schools were rather expensive to set up. Lisa Nandy the Labour MP and Select Committee member, says that the West London Free School, for example, received £12,416 per pupil in its first year, compared to an average of £7,064. The WLFS, among the most high profile of the institutions, and the first Free school to sign a funding agreement, has cost the DfE £15m. Setting up free schools requires upfront capital expenditure, but the education department has taken a 60 per cent cut to its capital budget. The DfE expected building costs for the first 24 schools to come to £124m. But as Chris Cook pointed out in the FT ‘this is a poor guide to the costs of further free schools. For example, many of the first wave have been subsidised by local authorities. Furthermore, several are private schools that have become state schools, so have only small building requirements.’ Cook added, probably correctly that ‘ Insiders believe the only way to achieve significant numbers of new schools is to find a way to increase the capital budget using private finance – perhaps by letting free schools borrow to pay for their buildings or permitting profit-making companies to enter the market.’ This low number anticipated for opening this year was even less impressive than it first seemed – as the department counted 16 University Technical Colleges towards the total. It appears that the department is planning for around 50 openings of free schools this September. And this is when there is a shortfall of Primary places in London and many other areas of the country, so the demand for new school places is clearly there, if not the capital and sites. So the funding shortage is not just about Free schools but has become a major issue for the Primary sector too. The £600m extra set aside this year to help local authorities deal with the shortfall in Primary places will need topping up sooner rather than later, and it looks as if the Government will have to turn to the private sector for help here too.