DfE must act over free schools debacle

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The damning report into the free schools programme is shaming for the coalition government, says Pete Henshaw. The Department for Education cannot be allowed to avoid answering some very tough questions.

“The oversight arrangements for free schools are not yet working effectively to ensure public money is used properly.”

“Standards of financial management and governance in some free schools are clearly not up to scratch.”

“Whistleblowers played a major role in uncovering recent scandals when problems should have been identified through the Education Funding Agency’s monitoring processes.”

“The Department for Education was unable to give a consistent explanation of how its decision-making process leads to certain applications’ approval and others’ rejection.”

“Capital costs of the free school programme are escalating.”

The first 24 free schools opened in September 2011. By September 2013, 174 had been opened. And a further 116 are set to follow suit in September this year.

However, as far as Parliamentary reports go, the results of the investigation by the Committee of Public Accounts into the government’s flagship education policy are damning.

Let’s be clear, this is no report based on prejudice or bias, this is based on direct evidence from Peter Lauener, CEO of the Education Funding Agency (EFA), and Chris Wormald, permanent secretary at the Department for Education (DfE).

Free schools have so far cost taxpayers £1.1 billion from a budget of £1.5 billion (of which £740 million is capital expenditure on buildings and land). This is money that has been spent at a time of deep austerity and huge public sector cuts – cuts which have hit state-maintained schools hard.

Yet a number of the committee’s findings not only bring into question the value for money that the DfE has achieved for taxpayers, but indeed the entire running of this controversial policy. 

The report comes after a number of high-profile scandals – “poor quality of teaching” and concerns about strict Islamic practices at the Al-Madinah School in Derby, failing standards at the Discovery New School in West Sussex, and “serious failings” in financial management at the Kings Science Academy in Bradford.

That MPs found the DfE not to have had effective enough oversight to prevent such incidents is shaming. That it has only been because of whistleblowers that some of these problems have come to light at all is disturbing.

MPs also attack the DfE and EFA for failing to act to ban free schools from using confidentiality clauses to gag would-be whistleblowers.

Also notable within the report is the complete lack of co-ordination between free schools and the need for school places. This is important because much of the government’s rhetoric around the need for the schools has centred on tackling the crisis in school places.

However, MPs found a seeming lack of strategy with no applications for primary free schools whatsoever in half the districts with “high or severe forecast need” for places.

And while 87 per cent of primary places in free schools already open are in districts with high or severe need, only 19 per cent of secondary free school places are in such areas. What makes matters worse is that many free schools have “admitted fewer pupils than planned admission numbers”, with no resulting sanctions from the DfE.

With this report, committee chair Margaret Hodge MP and her colleagues have laid down the gauntlet to the DfE – and the taxpayer has the right to expect some answers.

What is the DfE doing to encourage applications from areas that actually need extra school places? What is it doing to make its decision-making processes more transparent? How will it act to keep the escalating capital costs under control? How is it improving its monitoring arrangements in light of recent scandals?

These are vital questions and if the DfE cannot provide some satisfactory responses, then the future of the entire free schools programme must be in doubt.


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