DfE spent £115m on doomed free schools, UTCs and studio schools

The Department for Education spent more than £115 million on free school projects that went on to fail, new data shows.

The government has updated its register of capital spending on free schools, which details the acquisition and construction costs for all mainstream free schools, as well as information for university technical colleges and studio schools, which technically count as free schools.

Analysis of the data shows that, since 2010, £63,983,295 has been spent on eight UTCs that went on to close or announce closure. A further £28,926,340 has been shelled out for 17 studio school projects that didn’t work out, and £22,899,290 was spent on mainstream free schools that failed.

The actual spend is likely to be higher, as some doomed schools have not yet been included in the government’s data. In total, 26 studio schools, 11 mainstream free schools and nine UTCs have either closed or announced plans to shut.

The government has also admitted today that it handed a UTC site worth £10.3 million to a university after the college closed down.

Annual accounts of the Education and Skills Funding Agency reveal that the site previously occupied by UTC Lancashire until it closed in 2017 was handed over to the University of Central Lancashire. This resulted in a “gift” of £10.3 million from the ESFA to the university being listed in the accounts after the site was given up.

Overall, the government has spent more than £407 million on UTCs and studio schools and just over £505 million on mainstream free schools since 2010.

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  1. Mark Watson

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m certainly not saying the DfE are paragons of sound fiscal planning.
    But this piece seems to be implying that £115 million has been flushed down the toilet, which simply isn’t the case.
    Undoubtedly some of that money will have been genuinely “wasted”, but it seems from the piece above that most of the money went on capital acquisitions and construction. If that’s the case then the land/buildings may not be still being used by Studio School X but the DfE still owns a valuable asset that can be used for another purpose.
    Take the example given of the University of Central Lancashire. The DfE as a whole is responsible for schools and universities – if it believed there was an educational benefit for the University (maybe to provide a benefit to Northern opportunities) to have the land then what’s the problem? Yes there was some internal accounting, as it moved from the ESFA, but the investment has stayed in the education sector.
    Alternatively, if there’s no good use for it, they can always sell it. Probably won’t generate a 100% recovery, but it’s not going to be a total write off.

    • Mark Watson

      Nobody is saying this isn’t worth investigating, least of all me. What I’m asking for is responsible journalism that actually looks into the story that’s being written about, rather than taking a tabloid-approach and trying to come up with as sensationalist an angle as possible.
      If the DFE did indeed spend over £115 million on failed free schools, the important question is how much of this is has been genuinely wasted, and how much sits as assets within DfE’s accounts. Without this information we’re just speculating.