'The free school programme is badly run, poorly conceived and a waste of public money'

'Free schools are mired in financial scandals and educational underperformance,' writes Mary Bousted as she explains why the new National Education Union rejected the offer to open one

Mary Bousted

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As invitations go, it was one we had no qualms in declining. Mark Lehain, founder and principal of Bedford Free School, invited me and Kevin Courtney, from September joint secretaries of the National Education Union, to set up a free school. This, he argued, would enable the new union to use its experience and expertise to “make a difference”. He even offered to help us with the application.

Thanks Mark, but no thanks. The ATL union and the National Union of Teachers oppose the free school programme for many reasons. The principle is that schools, as part of society and financed by the public purse, should be subject to some form of local democratic oversight.  Of course, this argument also holds good for academies and multi-academy trusts (MATs).

In its haste to establish free schools, the Department for Education (DfE) failed to institute a proper process of applicant vetting. Over the years, as too many free schools have become mired in financial scandals and educational underperformance, we have, too often, seen our worst fears realised.

Young learners are not commodities

In a post-truth society, unions’ well-founded objections have been characterised by the free school movement as ideological and backward-looking. As more examples of free school failure have been unearthed, we have been told that failure was to be expected in such a grand experiment, as though children’s education was something to be gambled with – the dice thrown, sponsors found and away you go. If the school fails, that is a normal outcome in the education market.

But children and young people only get one chance to have a good education and this chance should not be subject to the vagaries of an education market. They are not cans of beans: they should not be left on the education shelf if the free school they attend fails and the local authority then has to step in to clear up the mess.

And now, it appears, union objections to the free school programme have acquired new and important allies.

Last month, the Conservative-dominated Public Accounts Committee (PAC) issued a stingingly critical report on the capital funding of schools, and the committee’s sights were set firmly on the free school programme.

In summary, the PAC noted that:

  • The system for funding new schools and new places in existing schools is increasingly incoherent and too often poor value for money.
  • The DfE is spending well over the odds in its bid to create 500 more free schools. But, as schools face a funding crisis, the government is prepared to spend 51 per cent more for each secondary place in a free school (and 33 per cent more on a primary free school place) compared with school places provided by a local authority.
  • Land purchased by the DfE to set up free schools is prohibitively expensive. As the PAC notes: “The department commonly pays well in excess of the official valuation. On average it has paid 19 per cent over the official valuation, with 20 sites costing over 60 per cent more.”
  • Between 2016 and 2022, the DfE expects to spend £2.5 billion on land for free schools, putting it in the same spending bracket as the top five homebuilders in the UK.
  • At the same time, existing school buildings are deteriorating fast. According to DfE estimates, it would cost £6.7 billion to return all school buildings to a satisfactory or better condition, and a further £7.1 billion to bring parts of school buildings from a satisfactory to a good condition. “Common defects”, say the PAC, “include problems with electrics and external walls, windows and doors”. (The survey was limited to assessing the condition of buildings and did not assess their safety or suitability.)
  • Despite their very high start-up costs, many free schools are in inadequate premises, including many without on-site playgrounds or sports facilities.
  • More than half of the 113,500 school places which will be created by free schools between 2015 and 2021 will create surplus school places in their local area. This is at a time when a further 420,000 new school places will be needed between 2016 and 2021, in areas of school place shortages, to cater for the growing school-age population. (Read this again and marvel at the incoherence of the free school policy in meeting one of the greatest challenges of the education system this decade – providing enough school places for the nation’s children.)

All of which leads the (again, I emphasise) Conservative-dominated Public Accounts Committee to conclude that it is not convinced that the DfE is using its funding in the most coherent and cost-effective way to provide the right number of school places in the right areas at the right time.

Nor is the PAC able to ascertain just what the DfE means when it says it aims to provide parents with choice and whether it is creating choice fairly and cost-effectively. Nor, according to the committee, does the DfE know enough about the state of the school estate, which means that the PAC concludes that the department “cannot make well-informed decisions about how best to use its limited resources”.

But worst of all, in a terrible indictment of the Conservative government’s knowledge of and care for the condition of school buildings, the DfE admits that, in the words of the PAC report: “The department expects free schools to improve educational standards by increasing competition between schools for pupils and funding. It does not yet know whether this is happening.”

So the National Education Union will not be in the queue to establish a free school. We will not be part of a programme which is so poorly conceived and badly run that it is, frankly, a waste of public money. 

Dr Mary Bousted is general secretary of the ATL union. She tweets as @MaryBoustedATL

For more columns by Mary, visit her back catalogue.

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Mary Bousted

Mary Bousted is joint general secretary of the National Education Union. She tweets @MaryBoustedNEU

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