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Primary Education News
News The agony of no school places for five-year-olds: how did we come to this? | Fiona Millar
The crisis in English primary school provision has been made worse by recent policies. Local authorities must be given back full control
Children packed like sardines, foreigners flooding in, temporary classrooms crowding out play space. The language used to illustrate the current chronic shortage of primary school places in England is emotive. And understandably so. The fear of not getting a school place for your child strikes at the heart of every parent. The fact that we are in this mess also points to some glaring problems at the heart of education policy.
According to the Local Government Association, almost half of English school districts will have a shortage of primary places by 2015. Some will face a 20% shortfall. Agonising about which school to choose will become an irrelevance for many parents, who may simply face the reality of no place at all for their rising five-year-old.
Planning for school places is an imprecise science. Birth rates are known and local government can predict the impact of future housing development, but there are also what might be described as known unknowns. Immigrations trends, welfare changes like the current housing benefit changes, cross-border movement of pupils, and the effect of recession on young families' ability to move or afford private school fees, can all have a significant effect on the basic need for places.
But clearly something has gone very badly wrong. The government yesterday swiftly put the blame at Labour's door, claiming a failure to plan for this situation during its time in office.
But the coalition has been in power for more than three years, during which time local government leaders have been warning of disaster. Sadly the Department for Education has appeared almost irrationally obsessed with its free school and academy programme.
The Education Act 2011 meant that all new schools must be either free schools or academies. But these are planned, authorised and funded directly from Whitehall, well away from the local government planning process – even though councils have statutory responsibility for providing school places.
In one farcical local situation this week, a new-build primary school failed to open because the DfE didn't find a sponsor in time. The coalition has allocated £1.7bn to free schools over the life of this parliament and 174 are now open. But the National Audit Office estimated that in the first two years of the programme, fewer than two-thirds of the places created were in areas of need. Perhaps more significantly, only a third were in primary schools.
Government has been making money available to local authorities for basic need (statutory school places) but clearly not enough; according to the National Audit Office some authorities have been funding basic need by raiding their capital repair budgets, thereby storing up other problems for the future. It is almost inconceivable that in these straitened times local authorities, whose budgets have been decimated, could launch their own school building programme without government support.
So this will be a crisis for some time to come – unless we see a drastic change to the haphazard and un-coordinated approach that has inevitably resulted from local and central government both having responsibility for this issue.
The first step should be an immediate stop to any new schools, unless there is a demonstrable need. The Local Government Association's education leader, David Simmonds, a Tory councillor, sensibly set aside the party political line yesterday to point out that parents in hard-pressed areas would understandably ask why money was being spent on extra free school places in areas where there were already vacancies.
The DfE should just pull out of the process and provide the money for local authorities to get on with planning and providing what is, after all, a basic right for children in their communities.
This wouldn't necessarily mean an end to diversity, parent promoters or choice. The Labour government set in train a process of local competitions for providers (from the maintained and academy sector,) where there was a need for a new school. That could be revived with immediate effect. But it would mean a big and awkward shift in rhetoric and policy, in favour of local rather than central government control. The drift has been determinedly in the opposite direction, regardless of who has been in power, for the last 20 years. We are seeing the effect of that in education now.
The crisis will apparently peak in 2015 – and that will not be a cheery prospect for MPs in an election year. Hopefully it will help focus minds, because a rapid change of direction needs to start now.