Shortfall in school places

17 Apr

(1)        The Current Scene

According to the National Audit Office (NAO), an estimated 256,000 primary and secondary places will be needed by 1 September 2014 (of which 240,000 will be in the primary sector) with 37% extra in London alone.

Altogether, 80,000 additional primary spaces were created in local authority schools and new Free Schools.  The increase alleviates only a small fraction of the pressure that local authorities face.   According to the NAO,

(i)            more than a fifth of primary schools (20.4%) are already full up or over-capacity;

(ii)           the number of children taught in large infant classes of 31 pupils or more has more than doubled over the last five years;

(iii)          between the academic years 2006/7 and 2011/12, the number of four-year-olds starting reception classes rose by 16%; and

(iv)         by September 2014, an estimated 256,000 extra primary and secondary places will be needed to meet demand.

We also know that 70,000 parents, one in seven of the total, did not get their children into their first choice of secondary school in September 2012. The reality is possibly worse. Many parents purposely select schools they are likely to be offered, rather than risk missing out by applying for the best. A quarter of all parents choose the local schools because they can walk there and a few regret doing so.

The Department for Education (DfE) estimated in 2010 that the country would need £5 billion to provide 324,000 additional places and was of the view that this would be covered by its funding and contributions from local councils.  However, the sum did not include costs such as acquiring land for new schools because the DfE assumed that most new places would be created as part of existing schools.

(2)        Reactions of Politicians

Politicians have been busy playing the blame game.   David Laws, the Schools Minister, said: “The (NAO) report confirms that this government is dramatically increasing funding for new school places with double the level of investment compared to the previous parliament. Labour reduced the number of places available even though there was a baby boom under way. We have already created 80,000 places to deal with the shortage of places left by the last government and there will be more places to come.”

However, Kevin Brennan, the Shadow Schools Minister, responded: “Michael Gove’s first job as Education Secretary is to provide enough school places for children.  He is failing in that duty.   David Cameron’s government needs to address the crisis in school places they have created.  They have cut funding for school buildings by 60%, twice the Whitehall average and wasted £1 billion through mismanaging academies.”

Brenan may have a point about wastage in Whitehall.  However, there is another fundamental problem to do with the legislation, in particular the Academy Act 2010.   One of the key clauses in it states that in the event of a shortage of places, local authorities must first invite members of the community to establish academies and/or free schools before opening new schools themselves.

Setting up new schools takes some time and effort because of the consultation process.  Having to wait until the community decides to take initiatives first by establishing academies and free schools adds to the time and effort.  The reality is that members of the community are frequently keen to take these initiatives (of opening free schools and academies) in areas that don’t necessarily need additional places.

As a consequence, the only option open to local authorities to discharge their planning-for-places function is to expand existing schools in areas where they are most needed.  This distracts the headteachers and governors from their primary function, i.e. to improve the quality of education and raise standards.   The pressures being placed on schools by Ofsted are thus exacerbated by local authorities keen to grow the existing schools, causing a real danger that they may be censured by inspectors and found to be wanting.

(3)        Situation in London

London suffers from this problem more than most.   Here are some statistics about the shortage of places in the capital.

(1)          There will be a shortfall of 18,230 primary school places for the September 2013 intake.

(2)          The figure will rise to 18,928 for September 2014.

(3)          Barking and Dagenham has the highest birth rate in the country – 58% between 2000 and 2010.

(4)          Over the last three years, Barking and Dagenham created almost 8,000 new primary places owing to rapidly changing demography.

(5)          In London’s 33 boroughs, 6,220 children did not get one of their choices out of the 100,000 pupils applying for primary places, according to the Pan-London Admissions Board.

(6)          The shortfall of primary and secondary school places across the capital is rising much faster than predicted, to around 90,000 by 2016.

(7)          Long-term demand for school places will continue to grow across the capital, with the cost of meeting this expected to reach £2.3 billion within the next four years.

(8)          An extra 6,000 children applied for reception places in London for September 2012, compared to September 2011, bringing the total number of applicants to 100,000.

The detailed situation in the London boroughs is as follows. (Minus figures show predicted shortfalls; plus figures show an estimated surplus.)

  • Barking and Dagenham:   -9.6%
  • Barnet:   -10%
  • Bexley:   -3.8%
  • Brent:   -11.6%
  • Bromley:   -3.3%
  • Camden:   +2.4%
  • City of London:   0%
  • Croydon:   -15.8%
  • Ealing:   -10.2%
  • Enfield:   -6.1%
  • Greenwich:   -2.7%
  • Hackney:   -3%
  • Hammersmith and Fulham:   -2.9%
  • Haringey:   -1.9%
  • Harrow:   -8.5%
  • Havering:   -4.5%
  • Hillingdon:   -7.4%
  • Hounslow:   -12.9%
  • Islington:   +5.6%
  • Kensington and Chelsea:  +6.4%
  • Kingston:   -3.1%
  • Lambeth:   -5.2%
  • Lewisham:   -9.0%
  • Merton:   9.1%
  • Newham:   -12.7%
  • Redbridge:   11.6%
  • Richmond:   -4.3%
  • Southwark:   -3.0%
  • Sutton:   -11.6%
  • Tower Hamlets:  -4.6%
  • Waltham Forest:   -14.0%
  • Wandsworth:   -6.8%
  • Westminster:   +1.6%

Currently, there are many children of statutory school age who are out of school.  Local authorities are fortunate that most of the parents of these children are unaware of the legal rights.  Not so a couple of parents who had moved to Croydon. They complained to the Local Government Ombudsman when their children were without education for six months.   The Local Authority was ordered by the Ombudsman to pay the parents £6,500.

(4)        Proposed Solution

Meanwhile, Phil Collins, a leading speech-writer for former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, proposes that the government permits free school proprietors to make a profit with a view to luring them into setting more up.  “….what is so wrong with an expert education company, run by teachers who have turned entrepreneurs, making a profit?” he wrote in The Times on 29 March 2013. “Set tough standards for literacy and numeracy levels and pay a premium graded for success. Let’s cap the sum, as with the utilities, at 7% a year.”

He went on to add: “There is never any objection when a profit is made from supplying children with writing implements or books or when people make a living from managing school facilities, making the school dinner or training the teachers. There is never an objection, in fact, when large chains look after children of pre-school age. As soon as a child hits school age it is, for some reason, an ideological crime to make money.”

However, critics will accuse Collins of distorting the aims of the Butler Act of 1944 which set out a commitment to provide our young people with free, basic education. Like it or not, this is a sacred cow. What he is referring to (i.e. the purchasing of other allied services in education) are the add-ons. What has to be said in his favour, however, is that, given the parlous state of the economy, we must be creative enough to find a way of doing more for less.

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