On the Today programme this morning I debated Meg Hillier, the Labour chair of the Public Accounts Committee which has just issued a damning report on free schools.
The report is wrong in almost every particular. It says the free schools programme offers ‘poor value for money’, but earlier this year the National Audit Office pointed out that free schools cost a third less than new schools built under Labour’s Building Schools for the Future programme.
The report says many free schools are in ‘inadequate premises’ and ‘the learning environment’ is ‘less effective’. In fact, 29pc of those inspected by Ofsted so far have been ranked ‘Outstanding’ compared to 21pc of all schools, and their exam results are top of the class. In the free school sixth forms that posted results last year, for instance, 27.8pc of pupils got A/A/B or better, compared to a national average of 19.9pc.
The PAC report says free schools aren’t creating new places where they’re needed most and questions the Department for Education’s ‘grip’. But over 80pc of the free schools opened or approved to open since 2014 have been in areas where there’s a demographic need for new places. Some do create a small number of surplus places, but without that parents wouldn’t have any choice about where to send their children. As the National Audit Office report said, ‘Some spare capacity is needed to allow parents to exercise choice.’ (To read more, click here.)