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Free schools Budget boost questioned

Industry leaders have questioned whether money is being spent wisely on free schools, following today’s Budget pledge to plough more cash into them.

Chancellor Philip Hammond today committed £320m to build 140 free schools, along with £216m for rebuilding and refurbishing existing schools.

But 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.”

Mr Robinson added that the group’s experience in delivering free schools suggested the biggest problem was negotiating land.

“If it’s privately owned land, it’s very difficult to quicken those negotiations,” he said.

“Even down a compulsory purchase order route, that still takes time and there’s no easy fix unless the government starts to buy land earlier.”

More on Budget 2017

Last month, public spending watchdog the National Audit Office revealed that the cost of delivering free schools had ballooned beyond what the Department for Education originally budgeted.

In 2010, the DfE estimated it would cost £900m to open 315 free schools by March 2015.

However, the study revealed that by March 2015 costs had rocketed to £1.8bn, with 305 free schools – which can be set up by community groups and don’t have to follow the national curriculum – opened to date.

The report said the DfE paid an average of 19 per cent more than official land valuations for free school sites, with 20 sites costing 60 per cent more.

Kier strategic frameworks and alliances director Michael Edwards said more information was needed on whether the government had already bought land under earlier funding for the free schools it has pledged to deliver today.

“If they’ve already bought the land and there are existing buildings on there, all that has to happen is for them to refurbish them,” he said.

Mr Edwards added that the big issue concerning free schools was whether local groups were spending money wisely.

“A lot of people think that free schools are being built where free school providers want them to be built, rather than where there needs to be school places built,” he said.

“If there is potential for providing an excessive provision in an area simply because you have a free school provider, then that is clearly a waste of money.”

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