Planning School Places: More than just about the numbers

On Friday 15th March the National Audit Office issued what can be seen as a critical report about capital funding for primary school places in England http://media.nao.org.uk/uploads/2013/03/10089-001_Capital-funding-for-new-school-places.pdf

The media, as might be expected, latched on to the fact that 250,000 extra places will be needed by September 2014, with a further 400,000 required by 2018, rather than the more technical discussion about the manner in which places are funded, and the value for money associated with the process. The figures for pupil places required are not new, although the shortfall still remains too large, and until recently hasn’t been treated with any degree of urgency at Westminster.

More important than the numbers is what can be read into the Report about the two competing ideologies in British politics – on the one hand, the market as a mechanism for solving all problems; and on the other some form of state planning. The post-war period has been marked in many areas of the public sector by a shift from a planning-based approach to public policy to a more market-based approach. The current generation of think-tank and policy research probably don’t realise that in September 1939 when DORA was introduced overnight (Defence of the Realm Act), using the experiences gained during the first World War, Britain became one of the most controlled and planned societies in the world: today planning is a concept that often seems to have bad name in public sector policy, especially in education. However, the NAO Report ought to mark a reappraisal if not a turning point in the debate.

In the private sector future planning is an integral part of every successful business. Just consider the fate of those retailers who didn’t plan for the effect of the internet on their customers or the train operators who have failed to cope with a record growth in passenger numbers. Without planning, come not just chaos but also inefficiency and public disappointment that eventually can lead to a sense of dissatisfaction with politicians. Now of course, planning isn’t an exact science, and bad planning can result is poor outcomes for society. But, planning for school places ought to be a basic part of the management of our education service.

Part of the reason for the failure in dealing with provision for the current upswing in the birth rate is undoubtedly the breakdown of the arrangements for controlling schools that stared a quarter of a century ago with the Education Reform Act, and site-level  management of schools. When the Labour Government invented sponsored academies to take over failing schools they destroyed many of the remaining education planning frameworks without making clear what would replace them. With Westminster and Town Hall either unable or unwilling to take on the responsibility, there has been a sense of drift and ‘passing the buck’ rather than of co-ordinated planning: hence the NAO’s concerns about both numbers and value for money.

One outcome will be that parents in many areas are now faced with Hobson’s choice over what school they can send their child to, and the notion of parental choice will become, like the red squirrel population, restricted to ever smaller areas of the country, at least for the next decade. Those parents whose children are starting school in locations where selective education still divides children at eleven might also want to consider how their secondary school system will cope with the increased numbers, and whether a system designed in the Nineteenth century for the few fits the educational needs of the many in the Twenty First century where all students will be expected to remain in learning until they are eighteen, irrespective of parental income or status.

From my perspective, however we procure the school places, and that might be through a market based approach, the State has a duty to ensure all pupils have a school place available to them that is not an unreasonable distance away from their home and doesn’t demand they attend a school that has an ideology or teaching methodology objectionable to their parents. To fail in planning for this basic task, while still requiring parents to send children to school, if not educated elsewhere, under pain of the criminal law, is a basic failure of government that is unlikely to go unpunished at the ballot box; although whether the right tier of government will shoulder the blame only time will tell.

If the provision of school places isn’t at the top of Minister’s agendas at present then it ought to be. There may be more fun tasks, but concentrating on the basics must now be top of both Ministers and officials ‘to do’ lists. History will judge a Secretary of State harshly if he fails to provide enough school places during the next decade.

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