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MPs report: Free schools building drive is ‘incoherent and wasteful’

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MPs have slammed the government’s controversial free schools drive as ‘incoherent and wasteful’ in a new report

The public accounts committee’s Capital Funding for Schools report said MPs ‘remain to be convinced’ that building free schools is the most cost-effective way of tackling the country’s school shortage in the face of the Department for Education’s (DfE) ‘limited funds’.

It also criticised the amount of money the department is pumping into purchasing sites for free schools, which are set up and run by community groups.

According to the AJ’s sister title Construction News, the report said: ‘The DfE is spending well over the odds in its bid to create 500 more free schools while other schools are in poor condition.’

It also questioned whether free schools were being built in the right areas.

According to MPs, approximately 57,500 of the 113,500 places to be created through mainstream free schools between 2015 and 2021 will not be needed.

’Free schools are helping to meet the need for new school places in some areas but are also creating spare capacity elsewhere,’ the report said.

The report’s conclusions echoed the equally damning National Audit Office investigation into how well the DfE spent its capital funding for schools since 2015.

The NAO report, released in February, said the department faced ‘significant challenges’ in improving the schools estate.

It was also revealed that the DfE spent an average of 19 per cent more than official land valuations for the free school sites.

The controversial free schools agenda has also been challenged by construction industry leaders.

Speaking to Construction News in March, Scape group chief executive Mark Robinson questioned whether money would be better spent expanding existing schools.

’It’s a good start, but are they spending their resources wisely?’ he said.

’There’s capacity within existing schools’ structures to extend and provide additional capacity that way.’

Willmott Dixon education sector director Andrew Alsbury said planning represented a crucial challenge facing the delivery of free schools.

’Where you have a free school in an area where a local council doesn’t want it to be and it has difficult planning constraints, it is harder to drive through,’ he said.

Comment

Jane Duncan, RIBA president
We are so pleased to see the value of good school design once again recognised in yeserday’s public accounts committee report. We particularly welcome the call for improving information collected on the condition of the school estate and the need for well-maintained buildings, which were both recommendations of the RIBA’s own Better Spaces for Learning report.

Ensuring the long-term viability of school buildings, through standardised post-occupancy evaluation, is key to delivering schools that are fit for our children in the future. We urge whoever forms the next government to ensure high-quality school buildings can be delivered, to the benefit of pupils, teachers, school leaders and the local community.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Michael Gove's efforts to cut the costs of schools provision seem to have backfired, and I wonder how the English free schools experience compares with that of Sweden and New Zealand?

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