“Ministers are choosing to give billions of pounds to build new free schools while existing schools are crumbling into disrepair, Whitehall’s spending watchdog has found.
The National Audit Office has calculated that £6.7bn is needed to bring existing school buildings in England and Wales to a satisfactory standard.
The then education minister Michael Gove pledged two years ago to create 500 free schools by 2020. Auditors have concluded that the Department for Education is facing a £2.5bn bill to purchase land to build them.
In a report released on Wednesday, auditors have questioned whether the plans for so many new free schools will be value for money.
Responding to the report, Meg Hillier, the Labour chair of the public accounts committee, called for the money assigned to new free schools to be diverted to existing buildings. “This is taxpayers’ money that could be used to fund much-needed improvements in thousands of existing school buildings,” she said.
Auditors found that the education department has already spent £863m on land acquisitions for free schools over the last five years – in some cases paying premium prices because of a shortage of suitable sites.
While free schools were helping to meet the demand for additional school places in some areas, the NAO said that because local authorities did not control their numbers they were not necessarily “fully aligned” with their needs.
Some free schools were opening in areas where there were already plenty of places, creating “spare capacity” that could taffect the future financial sustainability of other schools in the area, it said. The education department has estimated that of the 113,500 new places being opened in mainstream free schools between 2015 and 2021, 57,000 would create spare capacity in other nearby schools, potentially affecting their future funding.
Official data indicated creation of spare places in 52 free schools which opened in 2015 alone would have a “moderate or high impact” on the funding of 282 other schools.
At the same time, the NAO warned the condition of existing schools was worsening, with around 40% of the schools estate built between 1945 and 1976 coming up for replacement or major refurbishment.
As a result, the cost of restoring all schools to a satisfactory condition was expected to double over the course of the five years to 2020-21. …”