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.