Over half of the free schools that opened last year failed to meet their own pupil recruitment targets, Department for Education (DfE) figures show.
Nearly six out of 10 of the government’s flagship free schools that opened last September attracted only 90 per cent of their first-year capacity or less, according to analysis by The Guardian.
Almost one in four of the 44 mainstream free schools for which full data was available opened at 60 per cent or less of the student numbers predicted.
A comprehensive school in Wigan and one in Merseyside had less than half of the target number of pupils on their books, while one in Tower Hamlets, London, had 35 out of a predicted 81.
On average, free schools opening last September did so with 16 per cent fewer pupils than they predicted before opening.
A number of non-mainstream institutions largely set up to educate pupils excluded from other schools also had a smaller than expected number of students on their books. Three schools had only five pupils each at this time. One of them was set up after the DfE spent £2.15m on land and buildings costs.
While most schools only recruited one or two year groups on opening and planned to fully open over time, many still under-recruited year groups where they did admit pupils.
Controversy continued to surround free schools in early December after the National Audit Office (NAO) highlighted the rising cost of free schools, with £6.6 million allocated to each school for building costs.
The NAO said: “The primary factor in decision-making has been opening schools at pace, rather than maximizing value for money.”
The statistics result from a combination of the latest school census data with official DfE predictions of free school pupil numbers and school funding information.
A DfE spokeswoman said: “It is perfectly normal for any type of new school to take time to fully establish itself. The vast majority of free schools that opened in 2011 are now more than 95 per cent full, with many oversubscribed.
“There is nothing to suggest that the 2012 openers will not follow a similar pattern,” she added.