Pupil numbers continue to swell

13 Apr

On 2 March 2015, pupils transferring from primary to secondary state schools in September 2015 were offered places at the schools of their choice. Where there was a shortage, they were offered places at the nearest schools to where they live provided that there were vacancies.  The parents of pupils who were not offered places of their choice have a right to appeal to independent panels and many are exercising this right.

Those children eligible to begin school in September 2015 will know of their fate on 16 April 2015 and offered reception places.  The Local Government Association (LGA) has projected that nationally, we will need an additional 450,000 school places in the next five years and 900,000 in the next decade.   The government recognises this and has set aside £7.35 billion for the purpose of building new schools and expanding existing ones.

There are four main reasons for the increase in pupil numbers.

(1)        A rise in birth-rates.

(2)        An influx of refugee and asylum seekers from the troubled areas of the world.

(3)        The opening of the European Union (EU) borders.

(4)        Demographic shifts and population movements caused by a change of housing benefits.

The schools in the state sector in several parts of the country, especially in the London and surrounding areas, are creaking at the seams with having to accept more children.  Fortunately, 7% of children are educated in the private sector; otherwise the situation would have been much worse.

What can we do about the excess demand placed on schools and the undersupply of places?   Well, the government has pumped in more finance, i.e. £7.35 billion, to deal with this shortage.   Local authorities legally have the responsibility to ensure that all pupils residing in their areas are educated.  It doesn’t matter what kind of schools or whether they are within the boundaries of the LAs or not, in the private or state sector.  Parents have the responsibility, if their children are of statutory school age (which is in the term following their fifth birthdays), “to be educated in schools or otherwise”, ‘otherwise’ meaning home-educated.

However, whereas in the past there was an onus on local authorities (LAs) to build more schools if they projected increases in pupil numbers, they now have to operate with circumspection – thanks to the Academy Act 2010.  The planning hands of LAs are tied behind their backs.  LAs have first to invite professionals in education, parents and the public to open up new academies and/or free schools in the areas of great need.  It is only if there are “no offers” that the LAs can then establish new schools.

If the increase is in the primary sector, as it has been, there isn’t the luxury of time to carry out such invitations and consultations.  In many cases, children arrive at short notice – either because they are refugees or asylum seekers, from Eastern Europe or because of being re-housed.   The educational needs are immediate and often, schools are oversubscribed.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that Free Schools have opened in areas where there is no basic needs case to answer.   In this respect, Free Schools are sometimes a waste of taxpayers’ money.

The upshot of the crisis is that local authorities are left with no option but to expand existing schools. They have been doing so, in the first instance, by opening bulge classes on an emergency basis.  In the longer term, LAs expand existing primary schools from one to two, two to three, three to four and four to five forms of entry.

My experience of one local authority – the London Borough of Brent – is that it has carried out the exercise in the most civil manner possible, albeit efficiency has occasionally been a casualty.  The LA has gone to the governing body of a school it wishes to expand and invites the governors to permit the officers to engage in consultation and do the business. Where the governing body demurs for good reasons – i.e. insufficient room and/or play space – the LA backs off.  Sometimes, the governors do act motivated by selfish considerations, one being that they don’t want the work of the school and its pupils disrupted through the expansion process, with possibly detrimental effects on their SATs results.

The government needs to repeal aspects of the Academy Act to empower LAs to deal with this crisis.  However, both, the government and its civil servants are not making any move to do so, thus operating ostrich-like and burying their heads in these problematic, planning sands.

Notwithstanding, rather late in the day, they have begun to acknowledge that the problem may exist and are requiring academies to sign over land for the purposes of creating new schools to meet the growing demand for places.  These changes are being made through the backdoor by altering the funding agreements with all new academies.  The government, of course, is justifying the action by stating that it wishes to make “the best use of public land”.  A DfE spokesperson told The Times Educational Supplement: “This change to academies’ funding enables us to work with new academies with surplus land to explore ways of using it to meet demand for places in the area.”

Meanwhile, David Simmonds, chair of the LGA’s Children and Young People’s Board, said the school places crisis was approaching a “tipping point”, especially in the big cities.  “We have expanded existing schools as much as we can but now need to open new ones if we are to address the shortage of places.  So, to have this written down in academy agreements is welcome.”

However, much as this may be welcome, is it coming in too late and will it be enough?

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