22 May 2015

I asked in this post recently how you would spend half a million pounds in Cornwall. That’s public money being spent on the roofs of seven churches here.

Now set your sights higher. Suppose you had £4.5 million pounds to spend in Cornwall: how would you use it?

Three years ago a state-supported free school, St Michael’s, was opened in Camborne. Taxpayers gave £0.7 million so that the building of the former Girls Grammar School could be bought and £3.8 million to make it fit for purpose for the new school, a total of £4.5 million.

In this September it is to be merged with – probably too kind a way of expressing the reality – the state secondary school in Camborne which has the grand name of Camborne Science and International Academy. The merger is because St Michael’s is not financially viable as a separate school and is not offering students the educational opportunities it should; Ofsted said in June 2014 that overall it ”requires improvement”. See this account of the story. The Ofsted report June 2014 is here.

I support enterprise and parents seeking the best in schooling for their children; free schools are part of that. However, government has a responsibility to scrutinise enthusiasm before handing over public money.

Therefore let us ask what investigation the Department for education for England did into the likely financial and educational viability of the free school before St Michael’s was approved and given taxpayers money. This impact assessment by the Department suggested that St Michael’s “attraction will be relatively niche” and the data about school places in the area strikes me as mixed. What convinced the Department that the school would attract pupils in numbers for financial viability and succeed? Has it analysed the outcome and what lessons has it learnt? Will any of the £4.5 million be got back? This information should be made public because government should be accountable for its decisions. The Department’s mantra on free schools is that they offer good value for money and will raise educational standards. No doubt some do but it is important to understand when things don’t work out.