Government went ‘hell for leather’ on free schools, admits DfE top boss

The government went “hell for leather” and approved some free schools “a little bit fast” in the early days of the programme, the Department for Education’s top boss has admitted.

Jonathan Slater, the permanent secretary of the DfE, told the parliamentary public accounts committee this afternoon that the government was accountable for the four mainstream free schools that have closed as a result of poor pupil take-up.

He was quizzed over the situation at Southwark Free School, which it was reported in January was to close after attracting just 60 pupils following its opening in 2012.

Governors said no academy chains wanted to takeover the school because of its low numbers.

Slater said today it was “not a coincidence” that the four mainstream free schools which closed as a result of low pupil uptake were all approved “in the first couple of waves”.

“No mainstream free school approved since 2012 has closed because I think the department learned that going hell for leather, really building a sense of momentum, enthusing, encouraging, was going a little bit fast in some cases and so some schools closed. And we’re accountable for that.”

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  1. Accountable but unapologetic it seems. And no lessons learned. The only thing that is now a brake on free schools is that the money is running out because the programme is massively overspent.

  2. Free schools were promoted by Gove and Cameron as examples for the rest of the school system. But high-profile and much-praised Perry Beeches, Barnfield Federation and CHAT were among free school trusts sent Financial Notices to Improve; Durham Free School, praised by Gove as ‘excellent value’ was closed; and the head of Kings’ Science Academy, Sajid Raza, was jailed for fraud.

  3. If only someone had pointed this out to Gove at the time…oh, hang on, lots of people did.

    What this story proves, yet again, is that Ministers are almost never held to account because they move on too fast. There should be no statute of limitations on them, and a body that can hold them personally responsible for expensive policy errors even years after the event. They should have to pay in some way if their arrogance and stupidity is ever to be challenged robustly, to use a word they love to employ about anyone other than themselves.

  4. Given recent reports concerning “orphan” schools, stuck between the hard place of an LA cut to the bone and a MAT whose appetite to risk is much reduced, just what will happen to these schools and moreover the pupils?

    How will the government accommodate the estimated 300,000 additional school places if the MAT’s do not absorb and expand to meet the need? The rush to free schools and grammars will not see them provide an answer.
    The condition of the school estate is another time-bomb that is likely to contribute to the bleak future for the sector.