A quarter of all free schools have opened in areas where there is no need for additional school places, costing the taxpayer £241m, the government’s spending watchdog has found.
By 2015, nearly 350,000 extra places will be needed, mainly in the primary sector, but half of the areas facing the severest need have not applied to open a single primary free-school, the research states.
The figures were revealed in a report released today by the National Audit Office (NAO), which also shows ministers underestimated the cost of the free-school programme, which is expected to reach £1.1bn by March next year.
Overall, the watchdog's report says that the Department for Education (DfE) has made “clear progress” with its flagship schools policy, but warns it needs to deliver greater value for money.
The report comes just weeks after the free-school agenda was hit by a numbers of controversies, including the Al-Madinah Free School in Derby, which was branded “chaotic” by Ofsted, and the King Science Academy in Bradford, which is the subject of a police investigation for fraud.
But it is on school places where the NAO raises most concern, stating that while 87 per cent (27,000) of the primary free-school places are areas of high need, no applications have been made in half of the areas suffering the greatest need.
"From 2011 to 2013, there has been no clear pattern in the percentage of primary places being provided in districts with high and severe forecast need,” the report says.
Despite this, 42 out of the 174 open and approved free schools are in areas where there is no pressure on school places. Just 19 per cent of secondary free-schools opened in the areas with the greatest squeeze on school places.
Margaret Hodge, chair of the public accounts committee, said that at a time when money was tight, “it is essential that resources are directed at areas of greatest need for places”.
“The department has not got a proper grip on the programme,” she added.
Tristram Hunt, Labour’s education spokesman, said that the figures provided further evidence of the “inexcusable crisis” that David Cameron had created in school places.
“Providing enough good school places is a basic responsibility for any government,” Mr Hunt said. “Yet this Tory-led government is failing to deliver for all children.”
The study also shows that around a quarter of free-school places were left unfilled in the first year of opening due to a lack of parental demand, although that situation has now improved to just 14 per cent of places unfilled, the report states.
The Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) said that education secretary Michael Gove must ensure all new schools are in areas where they are most needed.
“We hope Michael Gove pays heed to the report and learns lessons from some of the mistakes of his free-school programme,” said ATL general secretary Mary Bousted.
“But we fear he is not interested in learning from his mistakes, so we will all find out the hard way that the faster free schools are opened, the less chance there is of considering if they are needed.”
The NAO report states that the DfE has succeeded in building the new schools at “much lower than average construction costs”, with each free school being built for around £6.6m on average.
In response to the report, education minister Elizabeth Truss said she was “pleased” it recognised the progress free schools had made, adding that most were opening in areas where extra places were needed.
“Free schools are popular with parents and are delivering strong discipline and teaching excellence across the country,” Ms Truss said.
“Three-quarters of the free schools inspected have been rated good or outstanding. The vast majority are opening in areas facing a shortage of school places, or in deprived communities."