DfE takes advice on using private cash to fund free-school buildings

This is an edited version of an article in the 2 October edition of TES. To read the full article, subscribe to TES here

The government is inviting some of the world’s biggest consultancy firms to advise on how it might secure private sector cash to pay for more free-school buildings.

The Department for Education is exploring the creation of a specialist property agency to tap industry expertise for the delivery of 500 new free schools, TES has learned, and “nothing is off the table” as ministers weigh up options for the building programme. Sites will need to be purchased for the schools, while capacity is needed for 900,000 extra pupils expected to enter the school system by the end of the current Parliament.

Under the proposal, a so-called “prop co” would be created. Owned by the secretary of state, the agency would enable the DfE to spend money without encountering the restrictions currently faced by the Education Funding Agency (EFA).

The move would also allow the agency to raise funds from the private sector, giving the government greater access to capital.

According to a well-placed source, the body would oversee the creation of the 500 free schools that prime minister David Cameron has committed the government to building by 2020. When Mr Cameron made the pledge before the general election, Lib Dem schools minister David Laws said the policy would “blow a giant £4 billion hole in the school-buildings budget”.

“The hope is that the move will enable the DfE to bring in expertise from the property sector, which has the experience and ability to broker deals that the EFA just doesn’t have,” the source said. “It will also provide greater flexibility to the DfE as the bulge in pupil numbers moves into the secondary sector.”

The new body would act as a land bank, enabling the DfE to distribute sites to free-school applicants, many of whom have had to defer opening owing to a lack of premises.

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