Exclusive: Anger over new £45m free school that may be be Britain's most expensive

Michael Gove approves plan to spend £45m – six times the average – on school for 500 children as spending watchdog condemns ‘outrageous’ cost of Harris Westminster Sixth Form

Whitehall Editor

The Education Secretary, Michael Gove, has approved a plan to spend £45m on a free school, making it almost certainly the most expensive in the country even though it has just 500 students, The Independent has learnt.

The cost of setting up the Harris Westminster Sixth Form for high-achieving students is six times the average cost of establishing a free school and equates to around £90,000 per pupil.

The decision comes months after the National Audit Office questioned the Government’s controversial free schools programme and accused the Department for Education of failing to exert control over its rising capital costs.

The Independent understands that the budget for this project – which is being sponsored by Westminster School – has been the subject of internal criticism within Whitehall.

Senior officials have privately questioned the value for money of the school which aims to send half of its pupils to Oxford or Cambridge and will prioritise children who are on subsidised school meals or who come from deprived areas, provided they first pass its selection test. The school said that of the 167 children offered places for its opening in September 61 per cent met those criteria.

But Margaret Hodge, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, described the expenditure as “outrageous”.

“This is nothing more than a vanity project that is taking precious resources away from areas which really need it in a time of austerity,” she said. Her own Barking constituency is “desperate for good quality school places for our children”, yet Mr Gove’s plans would only serve “a tiny number of pupils”, she said. “I’m all for helping children from disadvantaged backgrounds … but why does this school have to be in one of the most expensive areas of London?”

Today’s revelation comes just a month after The Independent revealed that existing state sixth-form colleges had suffered more than £100m in budget cuts over the past three years – forcing some to abandon A-level options such as maths and languages.

At the same time, there is expected to be a shortage of 240,000 primary school places by 2015 and pressure on places is acute in London.

So far the Government has spent £743m on establishing 174 free schools for 80,000 pupils. Capital costs of securing premises have been almost double DfE predictions.

Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said:  “When sixth-form budgets are being cut to the bone, this is an outrageous waste of money. The Government’s free school programme is clearly in complete disarray.  These vanity projects coming in at such huge expense to the taxpayer and benefiting only a few need to be stopped.”

The shadow Education Secretary, Tristram Hunt, added: “David Cameron’s Government has displayed a shocking degree of complacency in responding to the need for new school places – at a time when we are at crisis point for primary places.

“National Audit Office data show that, overall, two-thirds of all places created by the free schools programme – Cameron’s flagship schools policy – are being diverted away from areas of high and severe need for primary places. When times are tough, it is right that the first priority should be addressing basic need – that would be Labour’s priority.”

It is understood that the £45m cost was subject to a “significant difference of opinion” within the DfE where critics say that by concentrating large resources on the brightest children at a time when budgets are constrained means other children might miss out.

“At the end of the day it was Michael Gove’s decision,” said a source. “And no one could stop it.”

But a spokeswoman for the DfE robustly defended the plans tonight. “This is an inspirational collaboration between the country’s top academy chain and one of the best private schools in the country,” she said. “It will give hundreds of children from low income families across London the kind of top quality sixth-form previously reserved for the better off.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
voices
News
general electionThis quiz matches undecided voters with the best party for them
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen starred in the big screen adaptation of Austen's novel in 2005
tvStar says studios are forcing actors to get buff for period roles
News
science
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Ashdown Group: Systems Engineer - Linux - Central London

£40000 - £48000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Engineer - Linux ...

Ashdown Group: Linux Systems Administrator - Windows, Linux - Central London

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Linux Systems Administrat...

Recruitment Genius: Nursery Manager

£21000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Nursery Manager is required t...

Ashdown Group: Systems Engineer - Windows, Linux - Central London

£40000 - £48000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Engineer - Windo...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before