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Free school costs are ‘more than double’ estimates

The total capital funding needed to establish free schools is “more than double” the Department for Education’s initial estimates, a National Audit Report has revealed.

At £6.6m a school, the average cost of free school premises is more than twice as much as the DfE’s original planning assumption, according to the NAO’s Establishing Free Schools report.

The NAO said the DfE “will need to exert more control to contain rising costs”, but noted that forecasts have now been adjusted to reflect actual costs.

The main factor in decision-making had been “opening schools at pace, rather than maximising value for money”, the report said.

By September 2013, the DfE had opened 174 free schools providing nearly 82,000 pupil places. Around 70 per cent of those places were in areas forecasting “some need” for additional pupil places.

The NAO said that by using existing properties, reduced building specifications and smaller space standards, the Education Funding Agency had been able to reduce construction costs on free schools by 45 per cent on average compared with academies and maintained schools.

NAO head Amyas Morse said: “It is still early days in the free schools programme but the DfE has made clear progress by opening 174 schools, many at relatively low cost.

“Despite limitations in information, it is also improving its approach with each successive wave of proposals but will need to tackle a rising cost trend as the programme continues to grow.”

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