Tens of millions wasted on free schools that closed or never opened amid 'unprecedented' funding crisis

At least £138.5 million spent on opening 62 free schools, university technical colleges (UTC) and studio schools that have either closed, partially closed, or failed to open at all, NUT analysis shows

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The Independent Online

Tens of millions of pounds of taxpayers' money has been wasted on opening free schools that have subsequently closed, according to an analysis of Government data.

A review of data carried out by the National Union of Teachers (NUT) estimated that at least £138.5 million had been swallowed by opening 62 free schools, university technical colleges (UTC) and studio schools that have either closed, partially closed, or failed to open at all. 

According to the NUT, the figure – calculated using information taken from Government transparency websites, Companies House and media reports – would fund the employment of 3,680 teachers for a year, and provide £6,586 for every school in England.

It comes days after Education Secretary Justine Greening announced more than 130 more free schools were to be created as part of the Government’s pledge to generate 70,000 new school places to keep up with demand from the growing school-age population.

Angela Rayner MP, Labour's shadow Secretary of State for Education, said the findings served as evidence the Government’s free schools programme was “deeply inefficient”, saying despite “billions” of pounds being absorbed, it was failing to provide school places where they are most needed.

“This is yet more evidence that the Government's free schools programme is a deeply inefficient way to provide the new school places that are desperately needed,” said Ms Rayner.

“Billions of pounds of taxpayers' money has been sunk into free schools but there is still little evidence that the Government is creating new places for children in the areas that they are most needed. All of this while existing schools are facing an unprecedented budget crisis.

“Ministers should start ensuring that taxpayers' money is not being wasted and keep their promise to protect the funding that follows every child.”

Kevin Courtney, NUT general secretary, described the situation as “criminal”, and impelled the Government to apologise to teachers and parents for “throwing away” such significant sums of money. He added the figure was likely to be much higher, with some data unavailable.

“These figures make clear that the free school, UTC and studio school programmes were ill-thought policies which, in many cases, resulted in an appalling waste of significant sums of money – in the case of the closed UTCs, an average of £10 million was spent on each school, rising to £15 million in the case of Tottenham UTC.

“That sums of this magnitude have been thrown away at a time when schools across the country are crying out for funding for staff, to provide a broad and balanced curriculum and to ensure essential resources and equipment are available, is criminal. Ministers should apologise to teachers and parents.”

Mr Courtney added that there was also a “human cost” in the losses, and urged that it was time to abandon the free schools programme and focus on a solution that “works”.

“The ideological drive to introduce markets and competition by creating yet more types of school has been a disaster pursued without thought for its financial cost or the price paid by those children and their families whom the Government has so badly let down,” he said.

“It is now time to drop these failed programmes and focus on what works.”

The alarming findings come amid deep concerns over funding shortages in the education system. Teachers voted to back a one-day strike during the NUT annual conference in Cardiff on Saturday over growing concerns that budget cuts are driving workloads up and forcing staff out of the profession.

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A poll conducted by the NASUWT teaching union meanwhile revealed earlier this week that almost a fifth of parents had been asked to set up payments to their children's schools, with one in five of these saying the contributions cost £101 or more a year.

The free schools programme has already faced criticism from the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, which warned in a scathing report of the Government proposals that children’s futures were being put “at risk” as a result of what they said was the biggest squeeze on school spending to be enforced since the 1990s.

Industry leaders have also protested at the free school plans, which they said earmark billions for state-of-the-art buildings to be created while local authority schools struggle on in desperate need of repair.

Free schools are new state schools that are not under local council control and have freedom over areas such as staff pay and the curriculum. A total of 124 have opened since 2015, with 373 more, including those announced in the latest wave, due to open, while the Government has pledged to open 500 new free schools by September 2020.

Responding to the NUT findings, a Department for Education spokesperson said: “There are 1.8 million more children in good or outstanding schools than in 2010 and free schools are playing a vital role in creating those good school places.

“They are popular with parents, ensuring thousands more families have the choice of a good local school. The construction costs of a newly built free school are 29 per cent lower than those built under the previous school building programme.

“They also operate under a much more robust accountability system than council-run schools, meaning we can take swift action to deal with underperformance and as such, they are currently the highest performing group of non-selective schools.”