“The capital cost [of new free schools] will come from reducing spending on the government’s extremely wasteful Building Schools for the Future programme by 15 per cent.”
Michael Gove, (then shadow) education secretary, The Independent, 20 April 2010
Cathy Newman checks it out
During the election campaign, Michael Gove had to answer some difficult questions about how on earth he’d pay for his Swedish-style “free schools”. His answer was always that there was plenty of cash to spare in the Building Schools for the Future programme – the £55bn fund to rebuild English secondaries. But today, he let slip that money would no longer be used. Why not?
Over to the team for the analysis
Free schools will get cash for each pupil to cover day-to-day school running costs such as paying teachers. That’s fine once a school is up and running – but what about start-up costs such as building or converting new premises?
In the weeks before the election, Michael Gove promised to fund the capital (ie set-up and building) costs of the new schools by cutting the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) budget by 15 per cent.
Today, though, he U-turned – telling us that pot of cash would no longer be used.
Channel 4 News FactCheck understands the Treasury didn’t want the education secretary to use money from the BSF budget because they were worried the underspend he was counting on might not materialise.
The Treasury’s concerns are laid bare in a confidential document, seen by the FactCheck team.
It refers to “difficulties” using the BSF money because the Treasury was “unlikely to agree”. It said there was now an “immediate challenge” to find the money needed to set up the free schools this year, and added that £120m needed next year would be the “first call on the next spending review settlement”. Negotiations with the Treasury on that begin within weeks.
The document – a briefing note for Mr Gove for today’s press conference – went on to suggest something much more controversial.
Officials said the first of the new schools should be funded by money originally intended for free school meals for the poorest pupils. The shadow education secretary accused Mr Gove of robbing the poor to fund the rich, who are considered more likely to lobby for the new schools.
Ten days ago, the coalition shelved an £85m plan to extend free school meals to half a million children from poor working families, which would have lifted 50,000 children out of poverty. Campaigners slammed the move as “completely at odds with the coalition’s commitment to end child poverty”.
At the time, Mr Gove said any savings in the department would be re-invested in “measures that most directly affect attainment for the poorest pupils”. He said this would include programmes to get top graduates and career-changers teaching in the toughest schools – no mention of funding free schools.
Channel 4 News asked the education department about the document, written a week ago. Officials at first denied its existence. They then admitted it was genuine, but insisted that Mr Gove had now ruled out using the meals money for the new schools.
It’s strange there was no sign of that change of heart in the margins of the briefing note. Handwritten notes on the document indicating where the education secretary disagreed with his officials’ analysis said he wouldn’t announce next year’s £120m funding for free schools today because he wanted “greater flexibility”. However, on the matter of using free school meals money for the new schools, nothing was written.
Today, the government said it would use £50m from a £200m technology fund to help pay for set-up costs of schools this year. The money would have gone on whiteboards and school IT – useful kit, but not as sensitive as meals for the poorest children. But if there’s a big demand for free schools, Mr Gove will soon be scouring his department for further cuts to pay for them. £50m will only pay for around three new schools, but would go further if – as has happened abroad – schools were set up in the likes of empty office buildings.
Cathy Newman’s verdict
We don’t know how seriously Mr Gove considered raiding the free school meals budget to fund his new free schools. What we do know is that when Channel 4 News confronted his department about his plan, officials were swift to disown it. Education cuts under the Heath government earned the then education secretary the unflattering sobriquet “Thatcher Thatcher Milk Snatcher”.
Mr Gove’s name doesn’t lend itself to such a ditty, but he clearly had no wish to be remembered as the man who took meals from the mouths of the poor to fund a project beloved of the middle classes. But the very fact that the department considered such a move highlights the problems the education secretary is having finding the funds for the new schools in the age of austerity. That task isn’t going to get any easier.
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