Monday, 13 September 2010

Wanted - 100,000 School Places

Students will have to work harder in overcrowded classrooms if changes aren't made - image from _space group.

Recent research has revealed that England is facing an acute shortage in the number of school places, with more than 1 in 10 pupils in the country in schools suffering from overcrowding.

The suggestion is that the government will need to build a total of more than 100,000 places at primary and secondary schools, at a cost of up to £2bn. 50,000 of these places are required just to alleviate overcrowding, while the other 50,000 are places that local government officials have estimated will be needed to prevent the spread of overcrowding.

This overcrowding is driven by attempts by Local Authorities to cope with the lack of good schools in their boundaries. Popular schools are being allowed to grow beyond their buildings’ limits, so that as many families as possible get a place at their first choice institution. This means that already full schools will be unable to expand to meet demand as pupil places continue to rise, and larger shares of children will need to take up places at less successful schools.

Not only could a lack of classrooms force schools to increase class sizes, it also threatens to undermine the government’s plans to boost competition in education, which appears to depend on spare capacity for children to move between schools.

Currently, more than ¾ million children, 12% of the total in Local Authority schools, are in buildings that are more than 4% over the capacity for which they were designed. Among these children, more than 250,000 are in schools that are 10% over the limits of their facilities, while over 60,000 are in schools that have 20% more students than their buildings are intended for.

Considering that the amount of four year olds is set to rise by 8% over the next two years, this issue will only get worse, and in order to prevent overcrowding, Local Authorities will need to find another 25,000 new primary school places, with similar numbers for secondary schools required by 2014/15.

These growth numbers will be problem for a new education secretary who is planning wide-ranging reforms. His reforms are intended to increase the competition among schools. However this relies on a margin of spare capacity and new link choices to be made.

Apparently the school places crunch is not evenly distributed with London suffering particularly badly. The previous government had identified indentified investment for Local Authorities facing the shortage of primary school places and Building Schools for the Future was intended to be the long term answer to this issue.

Obviously, there was a bit of political too-ing and fro-ing on this issue, however there can be no doubt that the overcrowding is increasing and that this is likely to be a political timebomb. Clearly, there needs to be a stand back in relation to education building provision and how this aligns with ambitions, policy and performance of schools.