15 Jan 2015
Over the next 10 years, official statistics predict an extra 900,000 new school places will be needed.
When our school converted to being academy - in the second phase, so quite a while ago - we were sceptical about the amount of extra cash it would bring, but in fact it pretty well was as much as we'd hoped. We weren't too troubled about leaving the LA - they didn't seem to do much and we often had to buy in external support (eg HR legals) for services that the LA was top-slicing for. One concern was the loss of admissions control, but, as heavily over-subscribed school with absolutely no intention of changing our admissions policy, this didn't seem too much of an issue.
What we hadn't realised was that government policy would completely undermine the planning for school places resulting in a crisis across the whole country. This has occurred for four main reasons:
1. LAs no longer have the power to compel schools (academies) to expand to take pupils - nor the funds to support them in doing so. They estimate that they are £5bn short of the £12bn that the 900,000 extra places will require.
2. Pupil numbers are expanding - but that was no surprise
3. Free schools have absorbed cash to provide school places where they weren't needed (last official figure were from the NAO (2013) showing that even by then the DfE had wasted £214 million in this way and they were forecasting over £1 billion to have spent by now. Currently, more than 80% of free schools opened during 2014 had unfilled places, totalling 2,256 places in all.
4. As reserves have run out, and it's become clear that schools funding will be cut further, academies have started to expand unilaterally, free of LA control, to boost funds, even if they aren't in areas that need places - especially grammar schools, who can do so most easily owing to guaranteed demand. The legal prohibition on new grammars doesn't stop expansion.
These combine to make it impossible for LAs to exercise their duty (which they still have, despite having severely reduced means to do so) to ensure that there are enough places for the children in their area.
Here's a case we heard about last week: Stroud has two neighbouring grammar schools and an under subscribed comprehensive (it would be safe, in which context to call it a secondary modern). The grammars are unilaterally expanding - being academies, they are free to do so. They justify this because of the demand for school places in Gloucestershire, but in fact the comp has plenty of space - the shortage is elsewhere in the county - a long way from Stroud.
Meanwhile classrooms face overcrowding: according to Tristram Hunt, there's been a 200% increase in the number of infant children taught in classes of more than 30, for example. This bulge is moving through the school system, the leading edge hitting secondaries in the next couple of years.
There are pros and cons to academy conversion and from the (secondary) schools' point of view, pros generally win. When we were deciding at governors about whether to convert, a deputy head asked: "if we convert and then in five years someone says, would you like to return to LA control, is it likely that we'd want to?" At the time I thought this was a convincing argument to convert and, while we still wouldn't want to return, there is a very strong argument for reversing Gove's most damning legacy - controlled provision of school places - to local authorities.
And of course to give them the extra £5bn they'll need to provide enough places.
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