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UK Politics

Schools escape Chancellor’s spending purge but worries remain over expansion of Government’s flagship free schools scheme

Chancellor announces biggest expansion to the free schools scheme ever

Schools gave a collective sigh of relief that they had escaped the Chancellor’s spending purge - but expressed fears plans to expand the Government’s flagship free schools scheme could syphon off cash for new primary school places in the areas that most need them.

The Chancellor announced the biggest expansion to the free schools scheme ever with 180 new ones - to be run by parents, teachers, faith groups or community groups - being opened in 2015/16.

In addition, he announced 20 more University Technical Colleges, which provide a specialist vocational education for 14 to 18-year-olds and a further 20 studio schools, where students can learn while doing part-time work.

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said the increase in free schools meant “an inefficient use of a limited capital budget” - as experience showed they were not necessarily in the areas where places were most needed.

“In the face of rapidly rising numbers of young pupils, too many schools are being built at the wrong time, in the wrong phase (i.e secondary rather than primary) and in the wrong place,” he added.

However, there was relief that the pupil premium - which gives schools extra cash for every disadvantaged pupil they take in was being protected from cuts. Sara Caplan, education and skills partner at PwC - the management consultants, described this as “great as this will really help those from lower income backgrounds to overcome disadvantage”. She said the rise in UTC’s was “good but would have preferred to see more”.

However, schools were warned that cuts in local government spending would reduce services available to them. David Simmonds, chairman of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, said: “Government’s promise to protect school budgets has been undermined by this disproportionate 20 per cent cut to the vital support they receive from councils.”  This would hurt service aimed at helping schools improve at a time when education standards watchdog Ofsted was calling on councils to keep a closer eye on schools to ensure their standards do not slip.

Meanwhile, a six per cent cut in the budget at the Department for Business, innovation and Skills will see student grants pegged.  At present, they stand at £3,387. In addition, a £260 million cut in the further education budget will trigger a review of courses - foreshadowing the axing of those that make little impact on improving students’ employability.

In addition, The Government’s £50 million National Scholarship Programme will in future concentrate on aiding disadvantaged students seeking postgraduate courses - after complaints these had now become more of a preserve for rich and international students.