Teachers question free schools cost

The Government was today accused of squandering millions on private companies at a time when schools are facing cutbacks.

A National Union of Teachers (NUT) analysis of official spending figures claims that the Department for Education (DfE) paid five private firms alone around £21 million between April 2010 and February this year.

In her speech to the NUT's conference in Harrogate today, the union's general secretary Christine Blower raised concerns that public funding is being diverted from state schools and called on the Government to reveal how much of this money has gone on policies like the free schools programme.

She told delegates: "I wrote to Michael Gove last week to ask 'why, at a time when school budgets are being squeezed to the limits, has the DfE made £21 million in payments to private consultants?"'

Her letter adds: "I believe it is in the public interest for you to set out what this money has been used for and, in particular, whether these monies have been used in relation to any work these consultancies have carried out in respect of free schools."

The analysis claims that on top of the five companies, a further three private firms have been given almost £5 million for technical services.

The majority of this was actually paid by the Government's school rebuilding quango, Partnerships for Schools (PfS) to a legal firm, Dickinson Dees.

A PfS spokeswoman said: "Dickinson Dees were appointed in November 2010 to provide legal advice and support to free school proposers as they acquire and adapt buildings for educational use.

"Around £4.3 million was transferred by Partnerships for Schools to Dickinson Dees in February 2011, of which the majority was transferred for the purchase of freeholds for properties. Around £10,000 of the total sum was for professional fees."

Ms Blower also raised concerns about the numbers of DfE staff working on the free schools programme.

She said she had asked Education Secretary Mr Gove: "Why, at a time when the DfE is cutting staff, almost 100 DfE staff are employed on free school policy, equivalent to 4% of all junior posts in the DfE and costing the taxpayer almost £4 million?"

A DfE spokesman said: "Spend on consultants has been slashed under the coalition Government. In 2009-10 it was over £74 million but when final figures for the last financial year are published spend is expected to be significantly reduced. Even then, much of the spend will be leftover commitments from the last administration that are being wound up.

"This has been done by introducing strict rules on spending ensuring value for money for the taxpayer. We are sure that Christine Blower will be pleased with this huge reduction."

Free schools are semi-independent state schools set up by parents, teachers, faith groups and other organisations.

According to the NUT analysis, EC Harris has received £4.3 million since last April.

A spokesman for the firm said: "EC Harris is on the DfE framework for overall project management services.

"This includes providing project management services to academies, where we help with the delivery of the construction phase of academies on time and to budget, help with education briefs that set out details like the vision, ethos and governance, and other consultancy support.

"We provide similar project management services to three of the free school groups - West London Free School in Hammersmith and Fulham, King's Science Academy in Bradford, and the I-Foundation Hindu Primary School in Leicester."

A spokesman for Cambridge Education, one of the firms highlighted by the NUT, said: "There may be some misinterpretation of the figures as this (£2.1 million) reflects the project management services Cambridge Education has provided for a range of schools over the last year and which incidentally does not include any free schools."