The waste of public money otherwise known as the Free Schools programme is back in the news this weekend, and to no surprise that news focuses on the throwing of yet more taxpayer funds at Michael “Oiky” Gove’s pet project. This time, though, the leaks coming out of Whitehall are not from Gove’s retinue of polecats, but are in opposition to them. And the numbers do not look good.
Yes, "Oiky", you're wasting our money
As this blog has previously pointed out, the Free Schools programme was given a budget of around £450 million, which, in a time of supposed austerity, is bad enough for all those schools that have to cut back to make room for the incomers. But, far worse, that budget has already overshot by around £1 billion. Today’s news is that Gove is apparently chucking another £400 million at them.
And the language coming from allegedly senior Lib Dem sources (D. Laws (no relation)) is pretty forthright: “Michael Gove is so ideologically obsessed with his free schools experiment that he's willing to see children struggle to get suitable school places ... It is nothing short of lunacy to slash the amount of money available for new school places to lavish on free schools”. Can Laws be behind this?
Bad publicity - can it get any worse?
You betcha, says Sarah: “Michael Gove was warned by the schools minister David Laws that this was a bad idea but the zealot pressed on anyway ... Michael Gove is so dogmatic about free schools he essentially places no spending restrictions on them at all. The free schools budget is out of control and the Secretary of State would rather sink another £800m into the black hole, rather than rein in spending”.
So now it isn’t £400 million, but twice that amount: half diverted from “basic need” provision – that means a basic need for funding school places in local authority-run schools – and half from departmental underspend. The question begs itself: is this £800 million part of the previously identified £1 billion overspend, or is it, as seems more likely, in addition to it? If the latter, things really are out of control.
Yes, it certainly can get worse - a lot worse
Indeed, “Oiky’s” own spokesman has not denied the story, coming up with this magnificent slice of flannelspeak: “A spokesman for Gove did not deny that the Basic Need budget had been raided, but said that the free schools budget was ‘demand-led’”. Yes, the likes of the loathsome Toby Young fetch up and “demand” more dosh – say, for a £9.25 million building – and they get bunged it.
And it looks rather like the extra money is on top of existing overspends: “Ministers have earmarked £1.5bn for the free schools project by March 2015 – and £1.1bn has already been spent. An £800m deficit would be huge for a government trying to rein in spending”. So Gove’s flagship programme has gone from £450 million, to £1.5 billion, and now £2.3 billion. Small wonder the Lib Dems are kicking off.
This gives every appearance of being a very bad deal for taxpayers – yes, us.