Maggie Jones on how a new born baby boom is exposing a shortage of school places
Today in the Lords, I will challenge the government on how it intends to address the increasing shortfall in primary school places across England.
Latest projections show that a rise in the national birth rate will result in 450,000 more children needing a primary school place by 2015-16. The problem is particularly acute in London where 12% of primary schools are already over flowing. Over 200 new classrooms are being built but there is still a significant shortfall in the money needed to meet the extra demand. In addition, no plan exists to train the additional teaching staff that will be required.
This crisis in school places comes at a time of massive cuts in capital spending for schools. One of Michael Gove’s first acts was to axe Labour’s Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme. As a result, nearly 500 fewer schools are being refurbished with many children now being taught in leaking, temporary or sub-standard classrooms. A recent survey of nearly 700 head teachers revealed that four out of ten do not think their buildings are fit for purpose and there is increasing anger about the scale of cuts in capital and maintenance programmes.
Ministers meanwhile have suppressed the report of an independent evaluation of the BSF programme, revealed only after a Freedom of Information request. This showed that in schools which had been rebuilt under the scheme there were significant improvements in exam results and declining truancy. This disproved Gove’s claim that there was no evidence that school renovation impacted on performance.
The shortage of primary places is putting increasing pressure on the government’s plans to introduce more competition into the school allocation system. Parents are increasingly being turned away from popular schools which do not have the capacity to meet the demand, and parental choice is being replaced with a scramble to find any local school with places available. Parallel to this, the crisis in housing supply has left parents unable to move in search of suitable primary provision. And it all risks spreading into the secondary school sector in 2020, unless Ministers take urgent action to fund the additional capacity needed.
All of this is happening at a time when Mr Gove appears to be too busy trying to recreate the curriculum in his own image and promoting ideological teaching models that will appeal to the Tory right instead of addressing children’s basic education needs.
For example, despite the lack of cash for extra primary places, he announced last week that funding would be made available for 100 new Free Schools. Yet there is no requirement for these schools to be built in areas of greatest additional demand and no evidence that they provide higher levels of educational outcome. It remains an ideological experiment when what is needed is investment in good teachers and good facilities for all young people.
The full effect of the baby boom bubble has not hit the creaking primary school network yet. It is expected to peak around 2018. The Education Secretary should stop grandstanding and get back to his desk to develop a plan that will reassure parents that our education system can cope with the real pressures of the 21st century.
Baroness Maggie Jones of Whitchurch is a member of Labour’s Shadow Education team in the Lords