The Department for Education has finally, after 18 months, released the amount paid to Katharine Birbalsingh’s attempt to set up a “free” school, firstly in Lambeth and then in Wandsworth.
“The Michaela Community School free school trust announced its decision to defer opening of the school on 24 February 2012. Prior to this decision, the school was aiming to open in South London. The Department for Education’s expenditure on the Michaela Community School project up to that point was £168,339.64. Michaela Community School is now on course to open in Brent in September 2014”
She has now moved her sights to Wembley and this underlines how false the DfE’s statement on “free” schools is. On the website it states: “Free Schools are all-ability state-funded schools set up in response to what local people say they want and need in order to improve education for children in their community.” However, as reported before, there was considerable local opposition to her attempt to take over a building occupied by a charity in an area with a surplus of excellent secondary school places.
The DfE are still refusing to give a breakdown of the £168k, continuing to claim commercial interests. However, it must be questioned why it has taken several interventions by the Information Commissioners Office over a period of 18 months to get a response.
Full response below.
2 August 2013
Dear Ms Eades,
I refer to your request for information, which was received on 20 February 2013. You requested information on the costs incurred by the Department on the Michaela Community School project prior to the February 2012 decision to defer opening. We have been dealing with your request under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and it is currently being considered by the Information Commissioners Office (reference FS50501075).
As we have previously explained in James Vance’s letters to you of 22 March and 17 May, the Department does not hold any information ‘on the basis that [the project] has come to an end.’ The Michaela Community School project is a single on-going project that is due to finish when the school opens in September 2014. However, the Department has now given further consideration to your request and decided that we will provide information about expenditure on the Michaela Community School project prior to the deferral decision in February 2012. We do not hold information about expenditure under all of the categories that you requested but your request indicated that you would accept a total figure.
The Michaela Community School free school trust announced its decision to defer opening of the school on 24 February 2012. Prior to this decision, the school was aiming to open in South London. The Department for Education’s expenditure on the Michaela Community School project up to that point was £168,339.64. Michaela Community School is now on course to open in Brent in September 2014. Expenditure up to February 2012 includes much work that has on-going utility to the project. This includes the development of marketing and consultation materials which could be used as the basis for their current marketing and consultation in Brent as well as educational and staffing plans, governance arrangements, policies and procedures and other material which can be used by the school when it opens in Brent. It would be therefore be unreasonable to say that this money had been wasted.
The Department provides pre-opening funding to cover costs in the run up to opening a free school. Pre-opening funding is not just provided for free schools, it is imperative for the success of any new state school. The funding is designed to cover everything that a school will need to buy up to the point at which the school opens. The Department expects all expenditure to be essential to the project and be based on what represents the best value for money for the school. This funding can be used for the cost of any project management support for education services and for other costs.
In determining the amount of pre-opening funding free schools received, we seek to achieve best value for money and to reduce the overall costs of setting up a new school. This is why free schools that entered pre-opening in 2012 and beyond receive a set amount and then decide how best to use the funds to deliver their project. The set level of pre-opening funding for new projects varies according to the phase and nature of the school.
New local authority maintained schools and new sponsored academies have historically received similar funding as it is recognised that it is important to recruit to key posts, such as the principal designate, in advance of the school opening to ensure its gets off to the best possible start. All new schools – not just free schools – receive pre-opening funding. For example the funding provided to free schools is similar to that provided to new opening sponsored academies and less than that provided to sponsored academies between 2007 and 2009, Ashcroft Technology Academy, Wandsworth received £501,912, The Bridge Academy, Hackney received £544,686, Darwen Aldridge Community Academy, Blackburn with Darwen received £562,783 and The St Lawrence Academy, North Lincolnshire received £576,969. For new maintained schools separate funding figures are not available but these will often be planned over a longer period and the school would have direct support from council officers in relation to issues such as pupil recruitment, project management and staff recruitment and the local authority would cover the costs of employing a headteacher in the run up to the opening of the school.
The Department publishes information about the full cost of every Free School project shortly after the school opens. In this case, the total cost provided after the school opens will include the expenditure set out above.
If you have any queries about this letter, please do not hesitate to contact me.
Senior FOI Compliance Manager