Education & Family

Free schools got £60m for 'essential costs', data shows

Free school pupils
Image caption The government resisted freedom of information requests for details of free schools

The government has spent almost £60m on helping free schools in England before they open and during their first year of operation, figures reveal.

The figures were published by the Department for Education after a ruling by the information commissioner.

In January, the government lost a bid to withhold information on free schools that are state-funded but independently run.

The money is in addition to the funding schools receive to teach pupils.

Details of revenue expenditure on free schools on the Department for Education website show almost £40m was handed to 72 free schools in their first year after opening.

'Essential costs'

This "start-up funding" is to cover "essential initial costs, such as buying books and equipment" and other "additional costs associated with starting a brand new school", says the DfE.

In addition nearly £20m was spent on schools before they opened "to cover everything they need to buy up to the point at which the school opens."

The first 24 free schools opened in 2011, with another 55 in 2012. This funding does not include capital for buying a site or refurbishing buildings or money for free schools due to open later this year.

Private schools which convert to free school status do not receive start-up funding as they are already open and deemed to be fully equipped.

The data also shows that some £441,000 was spent on eight free school projects which were withdrawn before they opened.

Stephen Twigg, Labour's shadow education secretary called the expenditure "scandalous".

"David Cameron and Michael Gove have wasted hundreds of thousands of pounds on free schools that haven't even opened. And millions of pounds have been spent on free schools which are being set up in areas where there isn't a need for new places or demand from parents."

The government said it made "no apologies for spending money on encouraging new people to come forward, offering new ideas and new ways to run schools".

A spokesman added: "The evidence proves that new schools also encourage the ones which already exist to raise their game.

"Free schools are proving highly popular with families who expect better than the old 'take it or leave it' offer they used to get from the council. This process has a cost but the cost of educational failure is vastly higher."

The DfE had rejected Freedom of Information requests for for details on free schools and on groups applying to set them up but the information commissioner backed the requests.

'Protecting applicants'

The newly published figures include impact assessments on other local schools, funding agreements for the second wave of schools and details of expenditure for all the schools now open.

There are also details of all applications, both successful and unsuccessful, to open both mainstream free schools and specialist free schools, such as university technology colleges or studio schools.

In a letter to the information commissioner in February, the Education Secretary said he had resisted publishing the information because he wanted to protect applicants from "intimidation".

Kevin Courtney of the National Union of Teachers, said publication of the information was a major victory.

"We will now be going back to them to insist that they publish the remaining impact assessments where a decision has been made whether or not to open a free school.

"Not releasing the impact assessment information has always been a totally unacceptable position for the DfE to take. Local schools and communities have a right to know the criteria by which new schools are being opened in their areas and now thankfully they do."

Another 200 free schools are due to open from September 2013. In Wednesday's spending review the Chancellor announced funding for 180 new free schools in 2015-16.

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