The year 2015 was the worst on record for free school failures, with five schools failing to open at a cost of £700,000 to the taxpayer.
Figures released by the Department for Education (DfE) show nearly £2m has been spent on free schools that have failed to open since the first ones were launched in England in 2011.
The free school scheme was introduced by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government in 2010, the aim being to make it easier for charities, community groups and religious organisations to set up their own schools independently of their local authority, in an attempt to drive up education standards.
Trusts intending to set up a free school are entitled to a project development grant from the DfE to cover essential costs up to the point at which the school opens.
However, should a free school project be cancelled before opening, this funding cannot be reclaimed as long as it has been spent in line with DfE funding rules.
One that failed to open was Gateway Academy. Scheduled for opening in Brent, north-west London, in September 2015, it was due to educate 700 secondary school and sixth-form pupils. It folded after the free school trust failed to find a suitable site, costing the taxpayer more than £300,000. Of the 60 free schools planned to open in 2015, five failed to open.
Johnny Kyriacou, who was to be the head teacher of Gateway Academy, explained in a statement that this was due to rising land prices and competition against developers preventing a suitable site being found to accommodate the school.
A Department for Education spokesman said: “Our country needs more good school places for children. Free schools provide more options for parents so they can choose a place that really works for their child’s talents and needs.
“We have a rigorous assessment and pre-opening process to help ensure that only the best projects are approved, and that only high-quality free schools open.”
They added that 345 free schools had opened, “providing greater choice and more places in schools that are more likely than other state-funded schools to be judged outstanding”.
The spokesman also said: “To maintain these high standards, schools open only when we are confident they are in a strong position to provide an excellent education to all pupils from day one. Costs are controlled very carefully to deliver value for money to the taxpayer”.
Shadow education minister Angela Rayner told the BBC: “These new figures show that free schools have become a costly obsession of the government.
“Public money is being wasted on an ideological Tory obsession which is failing to deliver the good schools which all our children deserve. It’s time Theresa May junked free schools, like she has junked forcing every school to become an academy.”
Liberal Democrat education spokesman John Pugh said: “As the maintained sector heads for a funding crisis to squander money to little effect and waste such huge sums on schools that do not even open borders on the criminally negligent.”
A spokeswoman for the New Schools Network, which supports the opening of free schools, said: “Free schools remain the most cost effective way of meeting the demand for new school places, short of putting Portacabins in school playgrounds.”