A statement from The Rt Hon Margaret Hodge MP, Chair of the Committee of Public Accounts
It appears that the Department for Education has neglected value for money in its rush to open free schools.
350,000 extra school places are needed by September 2015. At a time when money is tight, it is essential that resources are directed at areas of greatest need for places. Over £1 billion will have been spent on the free schools programme by March 2014, yet on opening, 1 in 4 desks at free schools were empty and fewer than 1 in 5 secondary places are in areas of high or severe need. Whether that is the best way of spending taxpayers’ money is a matter for debate.
Nor has the Department had a proper grip on the costs of the programme. The £6.6 million setup cost per school is double what the Department expected, and the Department had to spend £27 million on temporary premises so that children were able to start school in September. It has also paid almost £27 million above its valuations for half the land and property it has purchased.
The Department has got to be much more rigorous about how it assesses applications for free schools and prioritises need and value for money.
While it is too early to judge the overall success of the programme, I am concerned about proper accountability for public money. A number of high profile cases have already surfaced, suggesting that monitoring systems remain inadequate. These cases highlight the urgent need for the Department to reassess its oversight of fledgling schools, get a grip on underperformance and prevent the misuse of public money.