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.”

News
Actor Burt Reynolds last year
peopleBurt Reynolds, once among the most bankable actors in Hollywood, is set to auction his memorabilia
News
Gordon and Tana Ramsay arrive at the High Court, London
newsTV chef gives evidence against his father-in-law in court case
News
people

Watch the spoof Thanksgiving segment filmed for Live!
News
The data shows that the number of “unlawfully” large infant classes has doubled in the last 12 months alone
i100Mike Stuchbery, a teacher in Great Yarmouth, said he received abuse
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
The starship in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
filmsThe first glimpse of JJ Abrams' new film has been released online
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of The Guest Cat – expect to see it everywhere
books'It's a simple, sweet and charming tale; it’s very heartfelt'
News
i100 Charity collates series of videos that show acts of kindness to animals
Arts and Entertainment
One of the installations in the Reiner Ruthenbeck exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery
artCritics defend Reiner Ruthenbeck's 'Overturned Furniture'
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

Opilio Recruitment: Market Entry Analyst

£50k - 60k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A successful Google join...

Opilio Recruitment: International Development Manager

£60k per year + benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A successful Google joint vent...

Opilio Recruitment: Apprentice Advisor - IT

£30k - 34k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We are currently recruit...

h2 Recruit Ltd: New Business Sales Manager - Talent Management - £60,000 OTE

£35000 - £60000 per annum + benefits: h2 Recruit Ltd: A true market leader in ...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game