Concern at high price tag being paid for free schools

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: iStock

The government is paying “well over the odds” in its attempts to create 500 more free schools, with some sites being bought for as much as £30 million.

MPs on the House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts warns that despite this, many free schools are in inadequate premises without on-site facilities for sports or playgrounds.

A report published by the committee last week criticises the Department for Education (DfE) for deeming it “acceptable to appropriate community facilities and parks for routine school use”.

The DfE is aiming to open 500 more free schools by 2020, which would bring the total number open to 883.

However, MPs report that, on average, the DfE has paid nearly 20 per cent more for land for free schools than official valuations.

The report reveals that ministers spent £863 million on 175 free school sites between 2011 and 2016 at an average cost of £4.9 million.

However, 24 sites cost more than £10 million each and four cost more than £30 million. The report states: “The DfE is in a weak negotiating position and 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.

“It expects to spend a further £2.5 billion on land from 2016 to 2022, putting it in the same spending bracket as the top five homebuilders in the UK.”

The report also questions “how much of a grip” ministers have on meeting the rising demand for school places.

Around 420,000 new school places are needed by 2021 because of rising pupil numbers, but only around half of the school places created in new free schools opening between 2015 and 2021 will actually create spare capacity in the system (57,500 out of 113,500).

Elsewhere, MPs are worried about the state of the existing schools estate and the report warns that the DfE still does not know enough to be able to make well-informed decisions about how best to use resources.

Much of the school estate is more than 40 years old, with 60 per cent built before 1976.

A DfE property survey in 2014 estimated that it would cost £6.7 billion to return all school buildings to satisfactory or better condition, however the government allocated capital funding totalling £4.5 billion in 2015/16 to be spent on building capacity and improving the existing schools estate.

The report adds: “In the context of severe financial constraints it is vital that the DfE uses its funding in a more coherent and cost-effective way.

“The DfE indicated that its priority is to meet the government’s target of creating 500 more free schools by 2020, but we remain to be convinced that this represents the best use of the limited funds available.”

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