Council faces £5.6m bill for free school

Hertfordshire county council has been forced to stump up cash for an expensive new free school or face a shortage of secondary school places, writes John Dickens.

The councillors’ agreement follows a year’s delay on the new school and a government decision earlier this year to pull the plug on another free school project in the county.

The planned secondary school in Harpenden was given the go-ahead on the condition that Hertfordshire purchase its site – one of two free schools to be subjected to this constraint last year.

The council has already agreed to buy a 40-acre farm on greenbelt land for the school and is in the process of signing contracts.

It has been estimated the new school could cost between £35 million and £56 million. This is way in excess of the £6.6 million average cost of setting up a free school reported by the National Audit Office in 2013 – even after a projected £6.5 million for highway works has been subtracted.

Council cabinet members have agreed to pay up to 10 per cent of the costs of the new secondary, which means they could have to fork out as much as £5.6 million.

A council report said the estimated cost of the school – which will be run by the Harpenden Secondary Education Trust – is “relatively high” and Education Funding Agency (EFA) officials were said to be “concerned over their [EFA’s] ability to gain capital approval”.

But councillors agreed to the extra costs because of the need for additional places and a high level of parental concern about the new school, which had already been delayed a year.

The need for places was heightened last month when the government pulled the plug on another free school in the county, despite having already spent £1.9 million.

The Harperbury Free School, due to open in 2014, was ditched when it was found its proposed site was too small.

The decision to commit more funding to the new school was made last week during part two of a closed council cabinet meeting. The item was reportedly added to the agenda at the last minute after the EFA requested an answer over the additional cash by Friday.

When asked how much the council had agreed to pay, a spokesperson said the figure had not been disclosed because it was not yet known, and to speculate publicly would be “unhelpful to the process”.

The cash would come from capital grants the council received from the government for school expansions, she added.

Peter Lilley, the Conservative MP for Hitchin and Harpenden, told Schools Week the town “desperately needs” another school.

“There’s going to be a great excess [of pupils] if we don’t get this school up and running – the council is aware of that, as are parents,” he said.

Clive Glover, founder and vice-chair of the axed Harperbury school, said the council’s move posed “questions” about why such an expensive project was being financed.

A Department for Education spokesperson said it was unable to comment on the story and could not confirm the costs because of commercial confidentiality.

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