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NEU brands free schools a ‘failure’ as spend on closed projects rises to £186m

NEU joint general secretary Kevin Courtney.


Successive governments have spent more than £180 million on free schools that went on to fail, according to new figures released today.

The National Education Union has branded the free schools programme “a shocking record of failure and waste” after its analysis of government data showed the government has now spent £186 million in revenue and capital funding on 45 free schools, university technical colleges and studio schools that have since either closed or announced plans to close.

Free school closures are not just a huge waste of money – they also cause massive upheaval, disruption and distress

The data shows a further £108 million was spent on free schools that had to be rebrokered to new sponsors by the government, while £8 million was spent on developing 65 projects that never actually opened.

And the union said the actual spend was likely to be much higher, because the government is yet to publish figures for some of the schools that closed.

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the NEU, said the data revealed “a shocking record of failure and waste” which was “the hallmark of the free school programme”.

But the New Schools Network, the organisation that promotes and supports free schools, branded the NEU’s figures “misleading”.

Introduced under Michael Gove, free schools have become a flagship policy of the Conservative Party, with hundreds now open across England.

However, the education secretary Gavin Williamson was recently forced to reaffirm his commitment to the policy after his party’s manifesto failed to set any target for new projects.

His intervention also came after Unity Howard, the head of the New Schools Network, warned that the political will behind the programme had diminished in recent years, and admitted free schools had an issue with their branding.

Responding to the NEU’s analysis, Howard said the figures were “deliberately misleading” and did not acknowledge the number of maintained school closures.

“These tactics are wholly unsurprising given the reality of free schools’ success. 30 per cent of free schools are Ofsted-Outstanding, compare to 19 per centof all other schools nationally, and again and again we see parents voting with their feet, choosing their local free school as their school of choice.

“Overall, 98 per cent of free schools established are open and thriving, and given their best-in-class performance and popularity, any government wanting to show it was serious about raising standards, would continue to invest in the programme at scale.”

The release of the NEU’s analysis follows a long-running debate over the merits of the free schools programme, and a series of disagreements over how many have actually closed.

Last year, shadow school minister Mike Kane claimed “more than 100 free schools” had folded, prompting his Tory counterpart Nick Gibb to declare that the true figure was actually 41.

But analysis of government data earlier this year by Schools Week found that neither figure was correct, and that at the time, 40 free schools had closed completely and 15 had been rebrokered.

Of the £186 million spent on failed projects, £73.6 million was spent on eight UTCs, £57.2 million was shelled out for 15 mainstream free schools that went on to shut and £55.6 million was spent on closed studio schools.

“Conservative politicians should be ashamed of the fact that one in eight of these schools has not been successful and that this has incurred a staggering waste of taxpayers’ money to the tune of over £300 million”, said Courtney.

“Free school closures are not just a huge waste of money – they also cause massive upheaval, disruption and distress for the staff, pupils and parents affected.

“It is time to knock the policy on the head and use the money this will free up to help ensure that existing schools get the funds they need.”

The Conservative Party was approached for comment.



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6 Comments

  1. Mark Watson

    I’d trust the NEU’s figures as far as I could throw a grand piano. Same goes for the New Schools Network.

    However Schools Week happily continues to report and amplify whatever they say without applying critical reasoning.

    I’ve said before, I would imagine the majority of spend on free schools is on property. If the Government buys a building for £10 million in Central London to use as a free school, and that free school then closes, then yes they have spent £10 million on a failed project. But they still hold a capital asset worth £10 million so there is no real loss there.

    How much of these figures being bandied about relates to property that is still held by the Government meaning it’s not a loss?

    • Mark – your question about property values is pertinent.
      Land bought by the taxpayer is handed to trusts running free schools without consideration. This represented a handover of land from the public to the private sector. The Secretary of State raises a ‘charge’ on the land to protect taxpayer assets. But it seems the DfE has no record of such charges. See here: https://www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk/2019/06/foi-response-suggests-worrying-incompetence-at-education-department
      That said, you’re right that the land would presumably return to the DfE should a free school close. In such cases, the arms-length company LocatEd would dispose of it at market value.

    • Mark – you’re right that the DfE (presumably) would hold the freehold value of a closed free school. But the costs involved go further than land purchase. Refurbishment form a large part of these. A former school may fail to attract a buyer willing to undo the refurbishment thereby reducing the value. If such a building was eventually sold, it could be a loss for the taxpayer.
      It’s impossible to assess the cost to the taxpayer of free schools closing or never opening.

      • Mark Watson

        Precisely, which is why I’d expect a reputable news organisation to either (a) do their own investigation into the matter, or (b) explain there may be other issues to take into account, rather than just repeating and amplifying a half-baked claim made by a highly politicised body 4 days before a general election.

        With regards to your concerns about the ‘grey area’ surrounding charges, in reality the main protection about the public investment in land comes from the fact that a ‘restriction against title’ is registered against freehold and leasehold land held by an academy trust that says the land cannot be disposed of without the written consent of the Secretary of State. This is not a charge, and is not shown at Companies House, but is shown on the Register of Title for the land in question.

        As for refurbishment, I’m not saying the purchase price is the only cost (though I would suggest it is likely to be the most significant). Refurbing the property could also of course increase the value by more than the costs of the work, as well as possibly also reducing the value.