Free schools: do their outcomes justify the cost?

There’s not enough evidence yet to see whether free schools have worked, says Tom Richmond, but what we do now know is quite how expensive the project has been

When Toby Young, the director of the New Schools Network, said last summer that free schools were “the most successful education policy of the post-war period”, I must admit to raising an eyebrow.

Having been a teacher twice, an adviser to the Department for Education, and a researcher on education and skills for almost a decade, it struck me as a rather peculiar claim.

To judge whether any education policy has succeeded or failed, there are two fundamental questions that one should pose. First, what has it delivered? There is little to be gained by supporters or critics cherry-picking individual free schools that support their pre-existing views.

It is easy to find examples of dismal failures along the way

Instead, we should evaluate them as a whole, and the evidence thus far has been mixed. Having analysed Ofsted reports and examination results, both the Education Datalab and the Education Policy Institute have concluded that it is hard to draw firm conclusions about the performance of free schools, largely because we do not have much data on them.

While some have produced sparkling results, it is easy to find examples of dismal failures along the way. So we can’t yet be sure what the project has delivered.

This brings us to the second consideration in judging the success of a policy: how much did it cost? Given the high-profile nature of free schools, you might think this would be a relatively straightforward answer.

On the contrary, financial information on these schools is extremely hard to locate, which makes it difficult to give a fair assessment of whether any benefits they might deliver have been worth the investment. I recently took it upon myself to find out how much money free schools have received and what the money has been spent on.

Through a combination of desk-based research, Excel spreadsheets, Freedom of Information requests and a lot of persistence, I found the answers to both questions. What I uncovered was surprising, and in some cases simply staggering.

The total sum of money spent on free schools up to April 2017 was over £3.6 billion. Given the climate of austerity that has gripped the DfE since 2010, this is a phenomenal amount and equates to approximately £8.6 million spent on each. Unsurprisingly, a large chunk of this funding has been consumed by capital costs such as construction, project management and land purchase. Much smaller amounts were spent on property and technical advice for these projects.

However, it is the money spent on legal advice that is most astonishing. In the early stages of the programme, the DfE was sometimes spending over £20 million in a single month on legal costs.

Expenditure on legal advice was so rampant at this time that it was consuming 25 per cent of all the money being ploughed into free schools.

A change in accounting procedures in 2014 means that legal costs now appear far lower than they once were. Even so, if we assume that (as was the case up to March 2014) these costs consumed a quarter of all spending on free schools, the total expenditure on legal advice since 2010 would now be £900 million – something that the DfE, the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee may all wish to reflect on.

Almost £1 billion a year is now being poured into free schools and this is likely to grow.

Supporters may choose to label this as money well spent, while critics will claim it as precious money wasted. My new report does not aim to settle the debate over these schools’ value for money, rather to provide an additional lens through which to view the costs and benefits of the programme both now and in the future.

By monitoring the examination results and Ofsted ratings of free schools in the coming years, at the same time as scrutinising the overall expenditure, we can hopefully move closer to working out whether the last seven years has been worthwhile.

Tom Richmond is a former adviser to the Department for Education

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