On the Today programme this morning I debated Meg Hillier, the Labour chair of the Public Accounts Committee which has just issued a damning report on free schools.
The report is wrong in almost every particular. It says the free schools programme offers 'poor value for money', but earlier this year the National Audit Office pointed out that free schools cost a third less than new schools built under Labour’s Building Schools for the Future programme.
The report says many free schools are in 'inadequate premises' and 'the learning environment' is 'less effective'. In fact, 29pc of those inspected by Ofsted so far have been ranked ‘Outstanding’ compared to 21pc of all schools, and their exam results are top of the class. In the free school sixth forms that posted results last year, for instance, 27.8pc of pupils got A/A/B or better, compared to a national average of 19.9pc.
The PAC report says free schools aren’t creating new places where they’re needed most and questions the Department for Education’s 'grip'. But over 80pc of the free schools opened or approved to open since 2014 have been in areas where there’s a demographic need for new places. Some do create a small number of surplus places, but without that parents wouldn’t have any choice about where to send their children. As the National Audit Office report said, 'Some spare capacity is needed to allow parents to exercise choice.'
The PAC report draws attention to the small number of free schools that haven’t filled all their places, but the truth is they are more popular with parents than local authority schools. Last year, secondary free schools attracted an average of 3.6 applicants per place, compared to an average of 2.4 applicants per place in local authority schools.
It is a ludicrously one-sided report that is clearly intended to help Labour in the General Election campaign, which begs the question of how it came to be issued during purdah. The answer is that while purdah has applied to government departments since midnight on Friday, it doesn’t apply to the House of Commons until Parliament is dissolved.
I spoke to a Conservative member of Meg Hillier’s committee yesterday and he admitted he hadn’t even read the free schools report. He had only just learned that the PAC intended to rush out six reports before Parliamentary purdah kicks in, most of them critical of the Government. This is a particularly underhand move on Hillier’s part because none of the Whitehall departments criticised in PAC’s reports are able to respond thanks to purdah. Yesterday, all the Department for Education could say in response to the free schools report was, 'We will consider the recommendations carefully and respond in due course.'
The report is clearly Labour propaganda disguised as a 'cross-party' intervention, but that hasn’t stopped the media swallowing it hook, line and sinker. The Guardian splashed it on its front page under the headline ‘MPs condemn free schools policy as incoherent and wasteful’ and the BBC was scarcely any better (‘MPs question government’s “grip” on new school places’. It is a pity that the journalists constantly complaining about 'fake news' aren’t a little better at spotting it.