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Free schools: Why do they remain controversial?

The government has today officially launched a new property company – LocatED – to buy and develop sites for 500 new free schools. 

LocatED will have £2bn to play with to purchase land for controversial free schools and will work towards creating 600,000 new school places by 2021. It will become one of the largest buyers of land in the UK. 

It is expected that a total of 883 free schools will be in operation by September 2020. 

However, doubts have been raised over whether building free schools is a wise use of government money and it has not been clear what will be delivered under new funding released for the schools in this month’s Budget.

Construction News explains why free schools are so controversial; what industry leaders think about the plans; and a timeline of events: 

Why is the free schools programme so controversial?

Free schools can be set up by community groups and run outside of the national curriculum. They have their supporters and their opponents in the education world, and are also controversial in terms of their construction. 

Land often needs to be bought for free schools to be developed, and the locations are often questionned. The department has incurred “significant costs” in purchasing sites for free schools, public spending watchdog the National Audit Office (NAO) said last month.

Looking at the free schools programme from 2010 to 2015, the NAO said ministers spent an average of 19 per cent more on land for free schools than official valuations. It added:

  • Nearly three-quarters of the £830m budget for free school sites between 2011 and 2016 was spent on land in London
  • 22 of 24 four sites that the DfE paid over £10m for were located in London
  • Four of these 22 sites in London cost the DfE £30m or more

According to the NAO, a fifth of secondary free schools have been opened in areas where there is no need for extra capacity between 2010 and 2020.

What do industry leaders think?

Kier strategic frameworks and alliances director Michael Edwards:

“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.

“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.”

Bam Construction framework director Keith Rayner:

“The big unknown in terms of the £320m budgeted for free schools from the Spring Budget is the cost of sites.

“There have been high-profile purchases in London and the South-east in terms of how much these sites are costing them.”

Willmott Dixon education sector director Andrew Alsbury:

“One of the key challenges is planning.

“Where you have a free school in an area where a local council doesn’t want it to be and it has difficult planning constraints, it is harder to drive through.”

Scape chief executive Mark Robinson:

“There’s capacity within existing schools’ structures to extend and provide additional capacity that way.

“If [a free school site] is privately owned land, it’s very difficult to quicken those negotiations.

“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.”

Free Schools timeline

2010: DfE estimated it would spend £900m to open 315 free schools by March 2015 

March 2015: DfE had spent £1.8bn and opened 305 free schools  

2015-2016: £980m extra cash given for the programme. An extra £7bn was given to deliver 500 more free schools by September 2020 

2016: LocatED, a property company funded by the DfE, is given a soft launch to help it purchase and manage land for free schools more effectively 

December 2016: 202 projects completed and 433 more in development 

2016-2022: Department expects to spend further £2.5bn on land for free school sites 

2017: In the Spring Budget £380m was allocated to free schools. £60m has been sliced off to devolved countries for their own schools agenda and £320m has been allocated to begin delivery of 110 extra free schools in England within the course of this parliament. Extra funding will be needed from 2021 to complete the projects.

March 2017: LocatED is officially launched. Property consultant Lara Newman MBE is announced as chief executive of the company

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