3 Sep '13

News Schools are already bursting – they need funding now, Michael Gove | Anne Perkins

Fragmenting service provision has, predictably, caused an urgent crisis in school places. By 2015 it will be too late

The Local Government Association is warning that in two years' time half of all primary school districts will have more children than places – in some districts, they'll have to accommodate 20% more children. But already in some areas they're bulging. Take Gascoigne primary in Barking, one of the borough's six 1,000+ "titan" primaries, where they already have five classes in each year group and have to stagger lunch and play time as free space gets consumed by new classrooms.

Barking, along with a handful of other boroughs mainly in the south and east of England, is undoubtedly on the extreme edge of what is everywhere a rapid demographic change. Britain's birthrate is at its highest level for 40 years, but in Barking the number of 0- to five-year-olds has risen by 50% just since the last census, driven not only by a rising birthrate but also by a doubling of the foreign-born population and – a particular London problem here – an influx of families from central London fleeing the housing benefit cap.

But even in the leafy suburbs and market towns there are shortfalls where demographic trends are aggravated, for example, by developers defaulting on promises to build schools to match the new housing. Michael Gove, the education secretary, claimed this morning he inherited a disaster and that he has increased the funding for new places beyond Labour's projections. It's true that there's more than £800m in the pipeline for new schools, but not until after 2015. According to the LGA that will be too late.

There is a familiar pattern beginning to emerge here, of the unintended (but not unforeseen) consequences of fragmenting service provision. Syphoning education budget into free schools, which seem to be most popular in areas where a surplus of school places is anticipated, not only damages existing schools but also deprives poorer boroughs of desperately needed funding.

Meanwhile, the knock-on effects of other aspects of government policy – not just Iain Duncan Smith's housing benefit cap but also, for example, Gove's own expansion of free childcare for four-year-olds, which tends to be school-based, absorbing capacity needed elsewhere – seem to have escaped serious consideration. More childcare is unquestionably an important development, but it too needs proper funding (and a proper strategy).

Back in March, the National Audit Office identified the need for 250,000 new school places by the start not of 2015, as the LGA projects today, but of the 2014 school year. It also criticised the government's capacity to predict demand. But that's only part of the equation. Add in Gove's passion for free-form school start-ups and his enthusiasm for austerity which led to an initial 60% cut in the school buildings programme, and no wonder the 30+ primary school class which was supposed to have been driven out once again looks like becoming the norm in school districts across England.

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