The opponents of Free schools are complaining that the government has allocated £50 million of capital to such schools. They are seeking to suggest that the government will end up spending much more than £50 million. Is this true, and does it matter?
The government has ruled out allowing for profit companies to set up and run Free schools. They have not followed the Swedish model, where for profit companies play a big part. This does mean that UK Free schools are likely to need capital support from taxpayers, as well as all revenue costs being paid for out of the education budget. Fully privatised schools could absorb the capital costs financed from private sources, whilst still delivering free places to state financed pupils. Free schools in the UK are not a privatised model.
There are four kinds of capital spending possible to create and sustain a free school. The first is the school could buy an old school or other suitable property from the public sector. If the government gives it a grant to do this there need be no increase in total public spending, as the money is used to reward the public sector vendor. In a normal case a local education authority receives money from the free school, so the cash impact on the public sector is neutral.
The second is a Free school could buy a suitable property from the private sector. If the government gives it the money to do so, there will be an increase in public spending. If the Free school is to provide places that the state sector would oltherwise have to supply by building a new school or expanding an old one, then there is no increase to total spending, but a redistribution of it. If the Free school provides extra places to offer more choice in the local area, then there is an increase to public spending.
The third is the Free school could spend capital on refurbishment or improvement of an exisiting property. This is also an increase in public spending, but it might be a replacement project for such improvement by an LEA school.
The fourth is a Free school might build a new building. This is also an increase in public spending, but it too could be a replacement project for a similar project in theLEA sector where extra places are needed.
Critics should think a little more before sounding off. If Free schools provide better value in the construction, refurbishment and provision of school buildings, then taxpayers overall will benefit. If Free schools merely provide some places that would otherwise be provided by LEA schools, there should be no increase in spending, and maybe a saving from doing it in a less bureaucratic way. If the idea is to increase the number of surplus places to provide more choice, then there could be some increment to public sector capital costs, in the interests of offering more choice.
On Monday when this issue was first raised on the Today programme no Minister was available to deal with the criticisms. Ministers will have to learn that the way to push through their reforms is to be diligent in explaining and persuading at every opportunity.