William Eichler 22 February 2017

Taxes should be spent on improving school buildings not opening free schools, MPs say

Taxes should be spent on improving school buildings not opening free schools, MPs say image

Nearly £7bn is needed to bring school buildings up to a ‘satisfactory state’ but the Government is using taxpayers’ money to open new free schools, MPs say.

A new report from the National Audit Office (NAO) has warned the expected deterioration in the condition of the school estate is a ‘significant risk to long-term value for money’.

They said it would cost £6.7bn to return all school buildings to ‘satisfactory’ or ‘better condition’, and a further £7.1bn to bring parts of school buildings from ‘satisfactory’ to ‘good condition’.

Local authorities, as well as schools and multi-academy trusts, are responsible for maintaining the condition of school buildings.

The Department of Education also plans to open 500 new free schools between May 2015 and September 2020, the NAO report said. However, a lack of suitable land means the Government is having to pay ‘large sums’ to secure sites in the right places.

The NAO found that while the average cost of the 175 sites bought by the Department is £4.9m, 24 sites have cost more than £10m, including four that have cost more than £30m.

Responding to the report, Meg Hillier, chair of the Committee of Public Accounts said: ‘The Department for Education needs to spend at least £6.7bn just to bring all school buildings up to a satisfactory state.

‘But the Department is choosing to open new free schools in areas which do not need them and are failing to fill places.

‘This is taxpayers’ money that could be used to fund much needed improvements in thousands of existing school buildings.’

The NAO’s report acknowledged progress had been made in securing new school places.

Between 2010 and 2015, they found, the Department and councils created 599,000 new school places at a cost of £7.5bn, mostly in ‘good’ or ‘outstanding schools’, enabling them to meet the growing demand for places.

However, the NAO warned there were indicators of pressure on school places in some local areas, particularly in London and the south east, and large amounts of spare capacity elsewhere.

The NAO also said that while free schools were playing an increasingly important role in addressing the demographic need for new school places, some were creating spare capacity which may have implications for schools’ financial sustainability.

The Local Government Association (LGA), responding to the NAO’s report, said that in order to meet demand existing academies should expand and councils should be given the powers to open maintained schools.

‘Councils have a statutory duty to ensure every child has a school place available to them but are under extreme pressure to accommodate rapidly rising numbers of pupils looking for a place,’ said Cllr Richard Watts, chair of the LGA’s Children and Young People Board.

‘If we’re to meet the demand for school places then existing academy schools should expand where required, or councils should be given back the powers to open new maintained schools.

‘No child should be without a place but councils fear that they will no longer be able to meet the rising costs for the creation of spaces, nor find the space for new classes, if they aren’t given the money or powers to do so.’

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