Government 'wasted millions on free schools which have now closed'

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The Government has been accused of wasting millions on opening free schools which have subsequently closed.

Analysis of Government data by the National Union of Teachers (NUT) estimated that at least £138.5 million had been swallowed by opening 62 free schools, university technical colleges (UTC) and studio schools which have either closed, partially closed, or failed to open at all.

The figures were largely taken from Government transparency websites, as well as Companies House and media reports.

Kevin Courtney, NUT general secretary, said: "These figures make clear that the free school, UTC and studio school programmes were ill-thought policies which, in many cases, resulted in an appalling waste of significant sums of money - in the case of the closed UTCs, an average of £10 million was spent on each school, rising to £15 million in the case of Tottenham UTC.

"That sums of this magnitude have been thrown away at a time when schools across the country are crying out for funding for staff, to provide a broad and balanced curriculum and to ensure essential resources and equipment are available, is criminal.

"Ministers should apologise to teachers and parents."

Education Secretary Justine Greening this week announced more than 130 new free schools had been approved by the Government, the largest number during this Parliament.

The schools will collectively create around 69,000 places for pupils, ministers said.

Free schools are new state schools that are not under local council control and have freedom over areas such as staff pay and the curriculum.

In total, 124 have opened since 2015, with 373 more, including those announced this week, due to open.

The Government has pledged to open 500 new free schools by September 2020.

The NUT said the £138.5 million would fund the employment of 3,680 teachers for a year.

And Mr Courtney warned the figure is likely to be much higher, with some data unavailable.

He added: "The true cost of these policy failures is even greater. There is a human cost in the disruption caused to the education of the thousands of those pupils who attended schools which have closed.

"Usually it is local authorities who have had to pick up the pieces by finding alternative places for the displaced children.

"The NUT's biggest concern is that the Government is intent on proceeding with these programmes despite growing evidence that the UTC and studio schools programmes cannot attract sufficient numbers of pupils.

"Furthermore, as the National Audit Office has highlighted, free schools are an expensive alternative to maintained schools when the cost per place is taken into account and they are often failing to provide places in the parts of the country that most need them.

"The Government has shown that it has completely the wrong priorities for education.

"The ideological drive to introduce markets and competition by creating yet more types of school has been a disaster pursued without thought for its financial cost or the price paid by those children and their families whom the Government has so badly let down.

"It is now time to drop these failed programmes and focus on what works."

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: "There are 1.8 million more children in good or outstanding schools than in 2010 and free schools are playing a vital role in creating those good school places.

"They are popular with parents, ensuring thousands more families have the choice of a good local school. The construction costs of a newly-built free school are 29% lower than those built under the previous school building programme.

"They also operate under a much more robust accountability system than council-run schools, meaning we can take swift action to deal with under-performance and, as such, they are currently the highest performing group of non-selective schools."

Shadow education secretary Angela Rayner said: "This is yet more evidence that the Tory Government's free schools programme is a deeply inefficient way to provide the new school places that are desperately needed.

"Billions of pounds of taxpayers' money has been sunk into free schools but there is still little evidence that the Government is creating new places for children in the areas that they are most needed. All of this while existing schools are facing an unprecedented budget crisis.

"Ministers should start ensuring that taxpayers' money is not being wasted and keep their promise to protect the funding that follows every child."