The Department for Education is hailing today's National Audit Office report on free schools as proof that, contrary to what Labour claims, the schools are providing places where they are needed. The study found that 70 per cent of the 114,000 places from open or approved schools are in districts "forecasting some need", with 87 per cent of primary places in those with "high or severe need".
But what the department doesn't mention is that in many of the areas with the greatest need, the schools are still failing to help. Only 19 per cent of secondary places are in areas of "high or severe" need and 42 schools, costing £241m, have opened in districts "with no forecast need". In addition, the department has received no applications to open primary schools in half of districts with high or severe forecast need by 2015-16.
In response, a DfE spokesperson has said: "As the NAO highlights in its report, most of our free schools are open in areas facing a need for school places. However, the programme is not our primary response to the shortage of school places. We are spending £5bn on new school places up to 2015, in addition to the money spent on free schools. This is more than double the amount spent by the last government over an equivalent four-year period."
But it remains doubtful whether this is enough to address the crisis. As Conservative councillor David Simmonds, the chair of the Local Government Association, has warned, almost half of English schools districts will have more primary pupils than places within two years and "the process of opening up much-needed schools is being impaired by a one-size-fits-all approach and in some cases by the presumption in favour of free schools and academies."
Further evidence that the schools are not meeting demand is supplied by the finding that a quarter of free schools places remain unfilled, with only 30 per cent achieving their planned admission number and 38 per cent falling short by at least one-fifth. But given the dim view most parents take of the institutions, that may not be surprising. A recent but underreported YouGov poll showed that just 27% of the public support the schools, with 47% opposed.