MPs have criticised the Department for Education for waiting too long before trying to reduce the cost of free school sites.
The concerns come in a letter published today from Meg Hillier, chair of the Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) to Jonathan Slater, permanent secretary at the DfE, following his evidence to the committee last month.
Ms Hillier also raised concerns about support being offered to schools in making the £3 billion of efficiency savings that the DfE expects to be delivered by 2019-20, after hearing about schools restricting their teaching hours and curricula.
'Not a net gain'
In July, education secretary Justine Greening announced an extra £1.3 billion for schools over the two years, found from within her department’s existing budget.
Ms Hillier noted that, when balanced against the expected efficiency savings, this “was not a net gain for schools”.
In her letter, Ms Hillier raised concerns about the £280 million savings the DfE said would be made from efficiencies in its free schools programme.
These are partly expected to come from local authority land being used for some new free schools, which aims to reduce their cost.
However, Ms Hillier said this was a “major challenge in areas where available land is scarce, such as London”.
Free schools plan
Noting previous concerns from the PAC about the cost of free schools sites, including four in London that cost more than £30 million, she added: “The department’s plans to reduce the cost of school sites is something that should not have come through at this late stage of the free schools programme – and shows a clear lack of thinking at the early stage of the programme.”
In her letter, Ms Hillier outlined approaches Mr Slater told the committee were being taken to help schools make efficiency savings.
He had told the PAC that academy trusts would be offered support from school efficiency advisers, and the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) would consider using such advisers to help struggling maintained schools, where local authorities have a capacity or capability issue.
However, Ms Hillier wrote: “We remain concerned about struggling schools being picked up and supported, and look forward to hearing further on these efforts.”
Regarding new procurement hubs to help schools make savings, she raised Mr Slater’s acknowledgement that using such hubs was not yet the norm for schools.
She wrote: “We remain concerned about the support the department and the ESFA can realistically provide to schools whose budgets cannot stand up to the savings demanded of them.”