According to a new report from the National Audit Office (NAO), many free schools have been established quickly and at relatively low cost, but the Department for Education (DfE) will need to control a rising cost trend as the programme grows and learn some hard lessons from performance issues that have arisen.
There are now 174 free schools, with the DfE improving its approach with each successive wave of proposals, but “the programme’s success and value for money will ultimately depend on how these free schools perform” said the head of the NAO, Amyas Morse.
The report suggests that the key determinant in deciding which schools to approve has been speed rather than maximising value for money and, even though later waves show much lower construction costs, there is still a “rising trend in capital costs” which is double the estimated total funding.
Since the programme is demand-led, there is uncertainty about the types of schools and where they will be located but there are no applications for primary free schools in half of all districts with a high need for school places and some of those already open have not attracted as many pupils as planned.
The teaching unions have welcomed “Establishing Free Schools” as it has highlighted a lack of information about the approval process, value for money and financial oversight as well as problems concerning the location of schools: this report will make “very uncomfortable reading” for the Government (NUT).