In the news this week has been criticism of the way Michael Gove, Secretary of state for Education, has spent £400 million from a fund meant for local authority schools to finance what is described in the media as his “pet project” of free schools.
There is concern among political rivals that money intended for basic need provision has been diverted to finance the opening of free schools, which has a shortfall in funding of £800 million.
A particular criticism of the free school programme is that they have been allowed to open in areas where no new school places are required, and that in primary education especially there are many unfilled places; over half the new primary free schools opening this Autumn have spare capacity.
In contrast free schools are not opening in areas where there is a need, especially for secondary school places.
According to an article in the Independent on Sunday,
“Mr Gove reduced funding in December for the “Basic Need” budget – money given by the Department for Education to local authorities to ensure there are enough school places for all – from £2.75bn to £2.35bn between 2015 and 2017. The £400m would have funded about 30,000 new school places over that period. The reduction was used to plug a shortfall in the free schools budget of about £800m between 2013 and 2016.”
Much of the criticism has come from the government’s coalition partners the Liberal Democrats and the disagreement over education policy is seen as a sign of a weakening in the coalition. The Liberal Democrats say they are in favour of free schools, but only in areas of need.
At some point there must be a halt to what has been described as the “lunacy” of the free school programme as it operates currently. Whether it will slow before the decision is made on the Steiner free school in Stroud where there is no need for additional places, we will wait to see.