DfE wastes £2.3m on UTCs and studio schools that never opened

The Department for Education has wasted more than £2.3 million over the last five years on studio schools, UTCs and post-16 free schools that never even opened.

Figures obtained by FE Week’s sister paper Schools Week reveal a staggering £2,331,888 has been written off for nine planned providers cancelled between May 2013 and January 2018.

The biggest loss was from the Powerlist Post 16 Leadership College, which was expected to open in London in September 2015 but was scrapped that month instead.

A joint venture between The Powerlist Foundation and the Aspirations Academy Trust, the cancelled college cost the DfE more than £467,000, including over £200,000 in capital losses.

Four university technical colleges also make the list, costing over £1 million between them.

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “The way taxpayers’ money is awarded to education projects should be transparent and above board, yet these examples raise questions about the level of scrutiny being applied to applications when the recipient schools are well-connected within government circles.”

But Mark Lehain interim director of the New Schools Network, a charity which supports the setup of free schools said establishing a school is “a big challenge”, and it is “only right” the DfE cancels the “small proportion” of cases that don’t develop as planned.

Burton and South Derbyshire UTC, developed in partnership with Burton and South Derbyshire College, was given over £8 million of government funding before being scrapped in May 2016.

This year the abandoned campus became a sixth form centre for the de Ferrers academy trust, but the DfE still accrued a loss of over £400,000 on the project.

UTC Guildford was supposed to open this year, but was scrapped in March 2017 at a cost of £408,000. Its trustees, which included Royal Holloway University and Surrey County Council, said at the time the DfE was “no longer supportive of the project”.

Planned engineering specialist Birkenhead UTC was backed by local employers including shipbuilder Cammell Laird, but was cancelled in May 2013 at a cost of almost £11,000. Liverpool Engineering and Logistics UTC, which counted City of Liverpool College, Liverpool John Moores University and engineering company Laing O’Rourke within its trustees, cost over £245,000 when it was scrapped in August 2014.

Two studio schools – Digital Studio College Derby and London’s Aldridge Centre for Entrepreneurship – cost over £560,000 when they were scrapped.

The most recent free school to have its plans rejected was the North West Leeds Sixth Form Centre, which was cancelled in January this year – eight months before it was due to open – at a cost of £121,864.

The scrapped projects were only identified by the department in the last academic year as a result of “improved financial management” and had not been previously reported, despite some dating back to 2013.

A DfE spokesperson said all free school projects “go through a robust approval process”.