School places still needed

Pupil place planning is at the core of a successful education system. The DfE has recently published a new Statistical First Release about school capacity 2017: academic year 201/2017. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/school-capacity-academic-year-2016-to-2017

The headline is that 825,000 places have been added to the school estate since 2010, a net increase of 577,000 primary places and 248,000 secondary places. Between 2016 and 2017, 66,000 primary places and 23,000 secondary places were added. As is generally known, the pupil population has been increasing and that increase has now started to reach  the secondary sector after a period where rolls in secondary schools had been declining: indeed, they still are a the upper end of some schools.

Whether or not new schools are needed to cope with the growth in pupil numbers depends upon the degree of spare capacity in the system: hence the DfE’s capacity surveys. However, that capacity has to be in the places where it will be needed, otherwise it is of little use. During periods of reducing pupil numbers canny local authorities always used to try to close their worst schools whether selected on performance grounds or because of the state of the buildings. They know that when pupil numbers started increasing again someone, usually central government, would have to pay for a new school. The decline in local authorities’ power and influence in education rather put a stop to this practice, but a couple of academy chains have closed schools that were uneconomic because they couldn’t attract enough pupils.

The DfE latest finding was that the number of primary schools that are at or over capacity has remained relatively stable since 2015, following a long term increase. The number of secondary schools that are at or over capacity has increased slightly since 2016, following a long term decrease. This suggests that the growth in the primary school population may be nearing its peak, at least at Key Stage 1. The DfE confirms this, by stating that local authority forecasts suggest primary pupil numbers may begin to plateau beyond 2020/21. Secondary pupil numbers are forecast to continue to rise as the increase seen in primary pupil numbers arrives in the secondary phase. Indeed, secondary school rolls will continue to increase well into the next decade. This is good news for anyone thinking of secondary school teaching as a career.

I have some concerns that the capacity in the secondary sector may not be increasing fast enough to meet the demands of the known increase in the school population. While it is still easy for a local authority to work with a developer over the creation of a new primary school for a housing estate, few estates are large enough to generate a developer provided secondary school. Asa result, the DfE will almost always have a bigger role to play in the development of new secondary schools.

At least in Oxford, the track record of the Education and Skills Funding Council in ensuring enough secondary places is mixed. All new schools must be ‘national’ schools under the free school and academy badges. County place planning identified a need for a new secondary school in Oxford City by 2019. An academy chain offered to sponsor a new school –call it a free school or an academy, it doesn’t really matter – finding a site was always going to challenge the local authority and the EFSC has now reached a position where the school seems unlikely to open in 2019. Such a situation is unacceptable to me. If the local authority had failed, parents could take the feelings out on local councillors at the next election. Civil servants in Coventry are protected from such democratic action, but I suppose might risk their jobs if local MPs felt affected. In this case, there are no Tory MPs in the City of Oxford and indeed, at present no Conservative councillors at any level of government.

If the government cannot take front-line responsibility for school place planning and the delivery of these places, then it should be fully returned to competent local authorities across England.

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8 thoughts on “School places still needed

  1. The two previous governments (Coalition and Tory) blamed Labour for the shortage of school places saying rightly that the number of places declined during Labour’s time in office. But Labour did recognise there were shortage ‘hotspots’ despite a national decline in pupil numbers. It allocated 400m to capital funding in these areas from 2007/8 to 2010/11, the NAO found. http://www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk/2013/07/is-labour-to-blame-for-the-lack-of-school-places
    But while Labour targeted money at areas where extra places were needed, governments since May 2010 have allowed free schools to open in areas where there was a surplus or which threatened the viability of existing schools. In Rutland, for example an existing sixth form closed after a sixth form free school opened nearby. http://www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk/2018/03/rutland-academy-affected-by-free-school-is-now-in-deficit And in Great Yarmouth, the Inspiration Trust wants to amalgamate its free school with another of its academies because of declining pupil numbers. This raises the question why the free school was allowed in the first place.
    While it’s true the majority of free schools have been in areas of need, the NAO found they weren’t in the areas of greatest need. And, as you say, LAs no longer have the power to commission their own schools The assumption is that all new schools will be free schools. This means LAs have to tout around for a group to propose a free school.

    • Janet,

      But Building Schools for the future often rebuilt schools that needed rebuilding but in areas that weren’t areas of pupil growth. When David Laws became Minister of State he did start to ramp up basic need spending. However, the free school programme did waste money and has slowed down the basic need programme in my opinion. The government may yet rue their approach to new secondary schools.

      John

    • Janet,

      i agree the free school programmer like so much of Mr Gove’s attempts at an education revolution was ill-thought out and lacked rationale in the use of scare resources during a period of austerity.

      John

  2. I think your penultimate paragraph hits the nail on the head – a system based on local democratic accountability, to the community which a council serves, has been replaced by one that has no democratic accountability, except perhaps at the most distant remove of one of many issues every five years in a general election.

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