This week’s National Audit Office review of the free schools programme shows that capital costs have varied widely

Sarah Richardson

Back in 2010, when the government called a halt to Labour’s Building Schools (BSF) for the Future programme, one of the areas it slated was the varying costs of school construction.

In his government-commissioned review of BSF, Dixons’ Sebastian James found costs could double between projects “with no clear relationship to quality”. For every example of a school which was well designed and appeared to achieve value for money, there was one that appeared to exemplify profligate spending. In short, James said, “the failure to look at the whole picture meant that it was impossible for the people involved (who seemed both capable and committed) to deliver the highest possible quality programme at the lowest possible cost.”

So it is particularly damning that the National Audit Office (NAO)has found this week that - three years on and in an environment where every pound has apparently been squeezed from public sector funding - one of the coalition’s replacement schools programmes is repeating similar mistakes.

The NAO’s report into delivering free schools found that the total capital cost “varied widely”, with some secondary schools costing below £10,000 a place and others more than £30,000. Eighteen per cent of free schools (half of them mainstream) cost more than £25,000 a place.

It’s not that free schools can’t deliver cost effective solutions: the projects at the lower end of the scale prove this. But the NAO lays bare the truth that the pace of achieving a political goal has been prioritised over cost of delivery: often, construction costs are not high, but have been pushed up by temporary accommodation and site acquisition costs as the government rushes to open schools.

In an era of constrained public spending, to have construction savings undermined by this hasty and seemingly chaotic approach is pretty galling.

But this becomes even more serious when you consider that the quality of these schools is not generally improved as a result of the higher spend. Free schools do not have to meet the space standards of previous school building programmes, and many do not have to meet standards on aspects such as daylight and acoustics being applied on other current programmes. It becomes inexcusable when you layer on top of that that many are not even being built in areas that will address the pressing shortage of school places - 42 schools have opened in districts with no forecast need, with estimated capital costs of £241m.

The NAO lays bare the truth that the pace of achieving a political goal has been prioritised over cost of delivery

The NAO report also shows that capital costs are rising, and anecdotal evidence from contractors suggests that the complicated nature of many free schools - multiple stakeholders and local planning issues - is leading them to be more selective over bids in a recovering market, which will likely drive costs up still further.

Architects, contractors and consultants are proving they can deliver good quality school places for much less than the average spend under BSF - with savings that many would not have believed possible when the government first demanded 30% cuts from the costs of school building. Free schools, as some of the projects delivered show, can work as part of that mix - but only part of it.

History, as a traditional academic subject, is one much valued by Michael Gove. So perhaps he should take a look back at the James’ review’s warning over that “whole picture”. Because the government’s incessant drive to prioritise free schools is in increasing danger of negating the work that has been done by the industry elsewhere - and directly undermining what should be its central guiding ambition: to deliver more quality school places for less money.

Sarah Richardson, Building editor

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @Sarahr100