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DfE must tackle ‘rising cost trend’ of free schools

More control is needed to contain rising costs of free schools, the National Audit Office (NAO) has urged. Its new report also calls for the government to learn lessons from performance issues in free schools.

Since 2010, 174 new free schools have opened, and at relatively low cost. But the government must focus on maximising value for money, taking a wider approach on the approval process, the NAO says. The DfE also initially underestimated the total capital funding needed and there is still uncertainty about types of schools and where they will be located, it added.

And while free schools are expected to provide an estimated 27,000 primary places in districts predicted to have high or severe need. However, the DfE has received no applications to open primary Free Schools in half of all districts with high or severe forecast need for school places.

Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, said: “It is still early days in the Free Schools programme but the Department for Education has made clear progress by opening 174 schools, many at relatively low cost. Despite limitations in information, it is also improving its approach with each successive wave of proposals but will need to tackle a rising cost trend as the programme continues to grow.

“The programme’s success and value for money ultimately depend on how Free Schools perform but lessons must be learned systematically from problems that have arisen in a few early wave schools, especially where these have revealed failures in governance and control.”

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