factFiction3The claim

“In choosing to prioritise school capital funding in areas with surplus places through his free schools programme, David Cameron is showing he is out of touch with the needs of ordinary people by failing to meet basic need for school places.”

Shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg, Labour press release, 3 September 2013   

The background

It was supposed to be a “schools revolution” – or so the Conservative manifesto pledged in 2010.

A “new generation of good small schools”, modelled on the Swedish “free schools” would give parents the opportunity to open schools where there was a shortage of places or where the schools on offer weren’t good enough.

As FactCheck previously discovered, under the Labour government the number of primary school places needed was totally underestimated – and they made matters worse by cutting funding. In short, Labour left a ticking time bomb.

But three years on, shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg argues that the government’s free school programme is failling – by allowing schools to open in areas where there are already too many extra places and not in areas where there’s a shortage.

Worse still, the Local Government Association says it wants to ban any more free schools opening up where there is already a surplus in places.

Has the government’s revolutionary free schools movement really failed at such a basic level? FactCheck swots up on the facts.

The analysis

In 2010, Michael Gove said he’d received 700 “expressions of interest” in setting up free schools.

But today he revealed that 93 new ones are opening this September, taking the total to 174.

So there are now 83 secondary and 91 primary free schools – which means 52 per cent of all free schools are primary schools.

Meanwhile, despite their efforts to right Labour’s wrong, the shortage in primary school places has actually got worse under the current government (FactCheck agreed with Ed Miliband on this point).

And the National Audit Office warned in March that if the government doesn’t pull out all stops, there will be a shortfall of 240,000 primary school places by September 2014.

The problem is most acute at primary level (the NAO says just 16,000 secondary school places are needed by comparison) and it’s made worse by the fact that the shortfall isn’t spread out evenly across the country.

FactCheck gave Labour a black mark previously for scaremongering the nation – when it’s a poignantly local issue.

Some primary schools have extra places, while others are buckling under the weight of demand. Of those buckling, 37 per cent are in London. Croydon, for example, is worst off in the entire country, with an expected shortage of -15.8 per cent.


But the Department for Education (DfE)  insists that the majority of primary free schools are opening up in areas of need.

And the DfE is right: two thirds, or 63 of the 91 new primary schools, are indeed opening in local authorities which the NAO warned would face a shortfall by 2014/15 if nothing was done.

The remaining third however – or 28 schools – have opened in areas where there is already a surplus.

Two schools are opening in areas where there is actually a surplus of more than 10 per cent: Sparkwell All Saints Primary in Devon, where there is a 13.8 per cent surplus, and St Anthony’s Primary in Gloucestershire, where there is a 15.6 per cent surplus.

Meanwhile, FactCheck notes that the NAO’s data shows that 15 local authorities in England are facing chronic shortfalls of more than 10 per cent.

These areas are Barnet, Brent, Bristol, East Cambridgeshire, Croydon, Ealing, Watford in Hertfordshire, Hounslow, Manchester, Newham, Peterborough, Redbridge, Slough, Sutton and Waltham Forest.

Nine of these local authorities are in London. Yet just seven of the 91 new primary free schools have opened in these areas – and only two this year: the Nishkam School West London in Hounslow and the Alma Primary School in Barnet.

Barnet – which faces a 10 per cent shortfall in places by 2014/15 – deserves a special mention for opening up three of the seven schools.

The verdict

The big problem is with the shortage of primary schools, not secondary. The NAO has warned that 256,000 new school places are needed by September 2014 – 240,000 primary and 16,000.

The government claims it has created 190,000 new places overall (it says these are mainly primary and that the number doesn’t include free school places).

It also says it will have spent £5bn by 2015 on new school places, on top of the extra money it has allocated to its free schools programme.

So far, just 52 per cent of all the free schools open or opening this year are primary schools – or 91 of the total 174.

It is fair for the government to argue that the majority of these primary free schools – 69 per cent – have opened in areas where there is a shortfall of places.

But there’s no denying that a third of the schools are in areas which have a surplus of places.

Plus, it’s worth noting that in the areas braced for worst shortage of primary school places, with a shortage of 10 per cent or more, only 13 free schools have opened.

The DfE says that a further 102 free schools have been given the green light to open in 2014. But just 33 of these are primary schools.

So in the four years to September 2014, the government would have created 276 free schools – of which less than half, 124, will be primary.

Money well spent? Perhaps not if you live in Croydon, which has not one free school and is facing a shortfall in primary school places of 15.8 per cent.

By Emma Thelwell