Exclusive: DfE's secret plan to share free school 'rewards' with private developers

The government tried to hide its scheme to build free schools in 'mixed use developments' such as retail parks

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Private property developers will share any “rewards” from free schools that will be built in retail parks and leisure developments, under plans the government wanted to keep secret.

The business case for the Department for Education’s property company, LocatED, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, reveals that one of the five “investment objectives” is to “share risks and rewards with private sector developers to offset the costs of new school provision”.

The document warns of potential problems in building new schools as part of developments such as leisure centres.

It says: “For mixed-use developments, there is a perceived or real conflict of interest due to the level of working with the private sector who will have other priorities, cost and time pressures.

“A mixed-use development site refers to sites which have a range of uses eg, a retail park or leisure centre, therefore the school would be part of a wider set of operations but must be the driving reason behind the acquisition.”

The DfE tried to suppress these details, but failed to redact them properly.

Valentine Mulholland, head of policy for the NAHT headteachers’ union, said: “The idea of siting new schools on retail parks and other commercial sites is of huge concern because it means that many families will have to travel longer distances to school and face higher costs, isolating the schools themselves in out-of-town locations.

“The commercial interests of developers will almost certainly not be a perfect fit for the needs of the school and its children.”

Meg Millier, chair of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, warned that were “safety and child protection” risks attached to placing schools close to busy shopping developments.

A DfE spokesperson said: “In securing sites for free schools, the need for a school comes first. Sites must meet the requirements of the school including providing a safe environment that meets child protection requirements.

“All site acquisitions are subject to a rigorous approvals process in line with the government’s Managing Public Money guidance on spending public funds.”

This is an edited article from the 1 September edition of Tes. Subscribers can read the full article here. This week's Tes magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

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