Funding for new school places: who has the ultimate responsibility?

The Public Accounts Committee has just published a short report into the Department for Education and the capital funding for new school places* following anxiety about the supply of places to meet the growth in the school population. It is worth highlighting the following paragraph from the summary of the Committee’s Report:

The Department does not have a good enough understanding of what value for money would look like in the delivery of school places, and whether it is being achieved. In response to fluctuations in local demand local authorities can direct maintained schools to expand or close but do not have this power over academies or free schools. Local authorities need to have mature discussions with all parties, including the academies and free schools, to resolve any mismatch between demand and supply for their communities as a whole. We hope that discussions at local level always prove successful, but the Department needs to be clear about how it will achieve the best value for money solutions in the event that local discussions fail to achieve a resolution. This has to be in the context that Free Schools and Academies are directly accountable to central Government, but the Government has no mechanism to force them to expand to meet the demand for school places. In addition, the Department does not sufficiently understand the risks to children’s learning and development that may arise as authorities strain the sinews of the school estate to deliver enough places. The imperative to increase the quantity of school places should not be achieved at the expense of quality.

This debate was further articulated in paragraph 14 of the report. The Committee asked the Department how it would resolve matters if, for example, it would be better for an academy or free school to expand or to close in accordance with changing demand in an area, but the particular school(s) did not wish to do so. The Department told The Committee that such situations are best settled by sensible discussions between professionals in the area concerned. The DFE said that such situations are intensely local and that, as opposed to a central direction from government, it would rather see local authorities and schools working collectively to meet such challenges. The Department assured us that it monitored these matters closely and that all cases so far had been resolved properly by discussion. The Department stated that, were it not to find a solution through discussion, it would look at the individual circumstances and make decisions accordingly. The parties involved need to be confident that a process to resolve these matters exists.

The Committee’s Report commented it hoped that discussions at local level always prove successful; it added, however, we would like to receive greater reassurance about the actions the DfE will take in order to help resolve matters to achieve the best value for money solutions in the event that local discussions break down.

Now in response to what is happening in Oxfordshire, I find the DfE’s comments curious since they have side-stepped the question of what happens if the DfE sanctions a new school where there is clearly an over-supply of places in the short-term. Both the UTC in Didcot and the Studio School in Banbury are in areas where the local supply for school places in the 14-18 age range is clear sufficient for the next few years, unless there is a dramatic upturn in house building. That hasn’t stopped the DfE introducing these two new schools that will make the position in terms of overall places even worse in the short-term, as I indicated in an earlier column. Whether the capital resources would have been better applied providing additional primary school places in schools where parents want their children to attend is a moot point. Indeed, the Committee recognised that the present system might force local authorities to expand poorly performing schools, because they had no choice of an alternative.

It does seem odd that more than 140 years after the creation of State Education such a basic issue as the provision of places for every child should have caused so much confusion and anxiety. It may be fun to create new types of school, reform the curriculum, or even take on the teachers, but a Secretary of State also has a Department to run, and successive holders of that office under both the present coalition and the previous government don’t always seem to have realised their duty of care to provide a service fit for everyone who uses it, and not some of them. The next crisis in Minister’s in-trays is probably around the matter of teacher supply. Let us hope that they don’t make the same mistakes as has happened with the supply of school places. The provision of teachers is, after all, just as basic an issue as the supply of places. After 140 years we ought to be getting both right not risking serious shortcomings in both. That’s not the way to a world-class education system.

* http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201314/cmselect/cmpubacc/359/35904.htm

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