Free Schools

28 March 2017

Commenting on the creation of LocatED, a new public property company set up to purchase and develop sites to help create new free schools, Kevin Courtney, General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers, the largest teachers' union, said:

"This announcement is nothing new. It is, however, deeply despairing for teachers and parents. While the vast majority of existing schools are balanced on a financial cliff edge, the decision to pour yet more money into the completely discredited free schools project is nothing short of obscene.

"The more the free school project flounders, the more inflated the Government's rhetoric becomes. The truth is that free schools have fallen some way short of achieving the claims originally made for the project. In the last three months alone we have heard that a further three free schools are to close - this will bring the total number of free schools which have closed or partially closed to eight. 1

"Experience shows that free schools are hugely wasteful and are no way to meet the demand for new places. Just last month the National Audit Office (NAO) highlighted the fact that, in order to secure sites in the right places, the DfE has paid large sums and entered into 'complex commercial agreements' in order to secure sites. The report also found that of the 175 sites the DfE has bought for free schools so far, 20 exceeded their official valuation by more than 60%. 2 This amounts to one unnecessary financial hit after another for taxpayers.

"We also know that the Government has written off £800,000 of the £11 million it wanted to claw back from 100 free schools which failed to recruit the expected numbers of pupils. 3 And this is to say nothing of those free schools on which money was spent but which never opened.

"Free schools are frequently having a negative and destabilising effect. Where they do open they sow confusion: the NAO report also pointed out that 30% of free schools have been delayed and that this results in local authorities having to make alternative arrangements to provide necessary places. 4

"Meanwhile, over 80% of local authority schools are rated good or outstanding by Ofsted. Local authorities must be allowed to open new community schools in order to continue this good work.

"Handing Government money to LocatED will do nothing to improve the hugely wasteful free schools project, and is simply another example of the Government having the wrong priorities. School funding is in a parlous state across the board, with 98% of schools projected to lose out - rising to £3bn per year in real terms by 2020. This will do real and long-term damage to the education system and the life chances of pupils. Justine Greening must listen to the chorus of voices aligned against her school cuts. She must take immediate action to improve the prospects for all schools. It is long overdue."

1The three schools are: Atherton Community School; Southwark Free School; and Bolton Wanderers Free School. The five that have closed or partially closed already are Stockport Technical School, Durham Free School, Discovery New School, Dawes Lane Academy and Al Madinah Free School (partially closed).
2NAO (February 2017) Capital funding for schools p. 11.
3'Empty free schools owe government £11m': http://schoolsweek.co.uk/empty-free-schools-owe-government-11m/
4Capital funding for schools, p. 11.

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