Normally I have a great deal of time for Fiona Millar and her comments about education. However, her column in today’s Guardian (4th September) did raise my hackles somewhat. It all stems from a Local Government Association spokesperson’s remarks yesterday about a ‘crisis’ in school places for primary schools. Now that’s just the sort of story editors have had pencilled in as part of their forward planning for September, and the need for a ‘start of term’ education story, as Fiona knows very well. The LGA spokesperson talked not of a ‘crisis’ this September, and thousands of children still looking for a school place, which seemingly there isn’t, but of one two years down the road in 2015. Now it just so happens that 2015 is an election year, as Fiona Millar is quick to point out, but any September shortfall that year might not be apparent until after a spring election, so where’s the political mileage in that unless you run the story now. The Daily Mail, an unlikely companion for Fiona Millar, but presumably happy to back a Tory Councillor, has also run the story for the past two days with a shocking account that raises the spectre children on a three day week.
There are two years to solve this problem, so it’s possibly a bit early for screaming headlines, especially as councils across the country have been planning for this, as the Cabinet member for Coventry made clear in a BBC local radio discussion I had with him yesterday morning. I suspect the whole thing is an attempt to secure more funding from central government because, again as Fiona points out, councils will find it a challenge to fund the new provision needed from their own resources, especially when faced with the significant drop in overall funding for local government as a whole that we are well aware of by now.
Where I do agree with Fiona is that what used to be an relatively easy planning exercise for most local councils has become more challenging with the addition of free schools, academies – in their various Labour and Tory guises – and UTCs and studio schools plus the ups and downs of the housing market. But London councils have had to manage complex arrangements with cross-boundary transfer for many years. So Fiona, there doesn’t seem to be any reason to say ‘something has gone badly wrong’. It might go wrong in the future, but there is time to prevent that happening. And, by the way, if the Labour government had listened to the London Councils in 2007 it would probably have stopped its policy of building replacement secondary schools and spent the cash on primary school places. However, when the present government moved to do just that, it was faced with a judicial review.
Along with Fiona, I also think the government has to decide who is running our schools, and have written about that issue before. And, as regular readers will know, at present I am more worried about a teacher supply crisis next year than a theoretical school place shortfall in 2015. But, time is running out, especially if you need to build a new school.