As offers for secondary school places go out in the post today, parents of 10- and 11-year-olds will be bracing themselves. They will
be hoping they will not be like one of the 84,000 families that did not get their preferred choice secondary school last year – a figure that could well rise again this year given forecasts are starting to show the growth in pupil numbers is now hitting the secondary phase. All in all, projections suggest there will be more than 300,000 additional secondary school pupils in the system by 2020, whilst one in six secondary schools are already full or over capacity. Parents in some parts of the country already experiencing pressure on places, such as in London and the South East, will be feeling this acutely. In some local areas up to half of secondary schools currently have more pupils than they have space for.
With such big rises in demand, it is crucial that the provision of new places has proper planning and co-ordination. Issues of limited space and land in our cities that are particularly resonant to the secondary sector make this ever more vital. Yet, the government still insists that they can leave responsibility for providing new school places to the market. They continue to believe that groups of parents or charities or others will come to the rescue via the Free Schools programme and resolve to meet the growing demand for more school places. It is this belief that for the past five years has been storing up trouble for our schools system.
In reality, the Tories’ obsession with Free Schools, which can be opened in areas where there are already enough school places, has made it harder and harder to ensure there are sufficient good school places everywhere. Ministers have removed local input on places and tied the hands of councils when it comes to opening and expanding existing schools – just to ensure that the Free Schools programme gets priority. Local authorities can now only require community schools to expand, and not academies and Free Schools – despite the fact that the majority of secondary schools are now academies.
The impact of this skewed approach to school place planning is now starting to be felt at grass roots. Class sizes rising, more ‘titan’ secondary schools with over 1,600 pupils, playgrounds, music rooms and libraries in schools converted to provide more classroom space, and children in some areas forced to travel further and further to their school – even by taxi – are all measures schools and local areas are exploiting to try to cope with the demand. With councils running out of options to expand good and outstanding schools, they have had little choice but to turn to the ones that are inadequate or require improvement. As a result, over half of the new secondary places created over the last five years were in failing schools. All this just to open 300-odd Free Schools, which are neither driving up standards, nor performing any better than any other type of school.
The warning from the Local Government Association today that councils will struggle to provide sufficient places unless the government changes their approach should be taken seriously. As I said last week, it no longer makes any sense to leave schools outside the localism agenda and this applies to planning for school places too. Ministers in Whitehall do not have the local knowledge, partnerships or community links to be able to take the most effective decisions on where more school places should be created. They should heed the calls to reinstate local input on planning for new places and remove the bureaucracy that councils face when it comes to opening and expanding schools.
Instead the Tories have labelled these warnings as ‘scaremongering’. It is time for them to grow up. This dismissive language on an issue that parents care deeply about will cut no ice with families who know that the government has had over five years to plan for the growing number of pupils. It was the basic, route-one, responsibility of Conservative ministers over the last parliament to ensure there were enough good school places everywhere – and they failed. Families up and down the country now deserve a better approach to planning for school places that does not involve an unjustified fixation with one type of school. It is long overdue that the Tories put the urgent need for sufficient good school places in every local area first.
First published in Progress on 29 February 2016.