Planning of school places should rest with local, not central, government

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 at every parent. The fact that we are in this mess also points to some glaring problems at the heart of current education policy.

According to the Local Government Association almost half of English school districts will have a shortage of primary places by 2015. Some areas 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 school place at all for their rising five-year-old children.

School place planning 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 the 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 impact on basic need for places.

But clearly something has gone very badly wrong now. The government yesterday swiftly put the blame at Labour’s door, claiming a failure to plan for this situation.

But the coalition has been in power for over three years, during which time local government leaders have been warning of imminent disaster. Sadly the DFE has appeared almost irrationally obsessed with its free school and academy programme.

The 2011 education act meant that all new schools must be either free schools or academies. But these are are planned, authorized and funded directly from Whitehall, well away from the local government planning process, even though it is councils that 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 £1.7 billion 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 LAs for basic need (statutory school places) but clearly not enough – according to the NAO some LAs 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 straightened 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 current haphazard and un-coordinated approach that has inevitably resulted from both local and central government having dual responsibility for this issue.

The first step should be an immediate stop to any new schools unless there is a demonstrable need. The LGA’s Education lead 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.

And the DFE should just pull out of the process and provide the money for local authorities able to get on with planning and providing what is after all a basic human 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 new school 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 one big shift and awkward shift in both 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 may not be a very cheery prospect for many MPs in election year. Hopefully it will help to focus minds because the rapid change of direction needs to start now.

This article originally appeared in the Guardian

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