The real cost of free schools
The government has just announced that the first 24 free schools are set to open in a couple of weeks, having involved a capital expenditure of somewhere between £110 and £130 million.
That works out at a minimum spend of £4.5 million a school. However, if we recognise that a large number of these schools are opening in temporary accommodation and that many of the buildings that they will ultimately occupy have been donated by local authorities, it becomes clear that the true cost of opening a free school is considerably higher.
Michael Gove has often cited the Swedish free schools as the model for his educational reforms. Kunskapsskolan, the organisation responsible for building and running many of those institutions, has put the average cost of adapting a building for school use at a mere £1 million.
However, the buildings that Kunskapsskolan has converted look rather different from those into which many of the UK’s free schools are moving. The Swedish schools have predominantly been established in redundant office buildings that are relatively straightforward to adapt. In the UK, that kind of accommodation hasn’t proved so readily available — at least not in the middle-class areas where the proposers of many of the free schools live. In Barnet, Fereday Pollard Architects therefore find themselves converting a garden centre for use as Etz Chaim Jewish Primary School, while in Slough the AOC is transforming the former RAF group headquarters of Bomber Command into Langley Hall Primary Academy. This last building is grade II listed, as are the homes of new free schools in Bradford, Crawley, Hammersmith, Leicester and Birmingham. Given the challenges presented in converting any building — let alone a listed one — it is not hard to see why Gove’s assumptions about the bargain price of free schools may already be proving ill-founded. Under BSF, contractors were notoriously reluctant to refurbish when they could demolish and start anew.
Much as Gove and Young may shudder at the thought, the skills of architects are surely going to be in considerable demand
Eric Pickles has recently issued planning policy guidance, requiring local authorities to maintain a “presumption” in favour of granting permission for new state-funded schools. Even so, the availability of suitable buildings is clearly going to limit the scale of the free school programme. It is no coincidence that the overwhelming number of schools in the first tranche are serving primary age children. The more specialised facilities that a secondary school might require are going to prove a lot harder to accommodate in existing structures. Much as Gove and Toby Young may shudder at the thought, the skills of architects are surely going to be in considerable demand.
For all this week’s trumpeting of free schools, it is becoming clear that the government’s flagship education programme is proving an expensive sideshow that risks distracting us from the enormous capital investment that mainstream state education urgently requires.
The free schools that are opening in a fortnight are set to accommodate fewer than 5,000 students. For all its failings, BSF did at least recognise the scale of the challenge that our cramped, dilapidated and energy-inefficient school building stock currently presents. As a society — however cash-strapped — we need to find the courage to face up to it again.