“There are plenty of potential education policy time bombs primed to go off during 2012: teachers’ pensions, school budgets, university applications and reform of the exam system. But overshadowing them all is an issue that has so far received relatively few headlines, but which it is already too late to defuse: the shortage of primary school places in England. … The Department for Education is watching it happen like a slow-motion car crash. It has thrown some extra money at it recently, but it is too late to prevent casualties.”
So says Mike Baker, formerly the BBC’s education editor, now a freelance education consultant and dedicated blogger (at www.mikebakereducation.co.uk). Professor John Howson, an authority on the teacher recruitment market, agrees with him. Last week he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme that the shortage of places for five-year-olds was the “biggest problem” facing schools in England. He added that although we have seen the problem coming – after all, the children entering primary school for the first time this September were born four or more years ago – the government’s response has been “tardy”.
Just how big is the problem? What is being done about it? What will it mean for parents, children and schools?
The number of pupils in state-funded primary schools began falling in the mid-1970s. With a couple of ups and downs it reached a low point in 2009 but, as result of a rising birth rate and the effect of immigration on the age-profile of population, started growing again in 2010. By 2015 the number of 5- and 6-year-olds in will increase by 10 per cent. By 2020 the overall number of children under 11 in state education is expected to be 20 per cent higher than in 2011 (an additional 799,000 pupils), returning to the levels last seen in the early 1970s. This rise would be sufficient to fill around 3,260 average-sized primary schools or 26,600 classes of 30 pupils.
The latest figures show that that there is some spare capacity in the system, or rather in parts of the system. In 2010/11, before the surge in pupil numbers had really begun, one-fifth of primary schools in England were full or over full, while four-fifths had unfilled places. The number of unfilled places (444,410) was more than ten times greater than the number by which the over-full schools exceeded their capacity (36,850). So there is spare capacity but there are two problems. First, currently unfilled primary school places amounts to only half of what would be needed to accommodate the projected rise in pupil numbers. Secondly, and in a sense worse, such spare capacity as there is, is concentrated in the wrong areas – the 440,000 unfilled places are not in the areas expected to experience the greatest rises in pupil numbers. The demand for school places is rising fastest in precisely those regions – parts of London, the West Midlands and the South West – where many primary schools are full and Local Authorities are already having to find ways accommodating classes that cannot be squeezed into existing buildings.
What is being done?
Soon after it came to power the Coalition Government closed the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme. The 2010 Comprehensive Spending Review cut the Department for Education’s capital budget by 60% over the five years of the current parliament. At the time the government remained confident that it would still be providing enough funding (starting with £800mn for 2011/12) to meet the projected rise in pupil numbers across the school system. However, last year it made an extra £500 million (coming from efficiency savings identified in those BSF projects that are continuing) available for school building in those areas with the greatest need for new places. In the statement announcing the additional funding the Education Secretary Michael Gove said that the total capital grant of £1.3bn for the 2011/12 would be used mainly on small primary school projects by the most hard-pressed local authorities who were already in a position to get projects underway. He added that over 100 LAs would be receiving a share of the extra £500mn, and that future capital allocations to all LAs for basic need and for maintenance will be announced later in the year.
How have the local authorities reacted?
Compare two cases which have attracted media attention:
The Hampshire Chronicle (Hampshire was the main focus of the Today piece) in an article on the ‘Race on to create primary school places’ reported in January that County officials believed that they would need at least 19 more primary schools by 2022 and were drawing up plans to tackle the issue. They and their counterparts in Southampton appeared to think the task was manageable within the present resource constraints. http://www.hampshirechronicle.co.uk/education/9473796.Race_on_to_create_primary_school_places/
The problem in London looks to be on a different scale. According to London Councils (a cross-party body speaking for the 33 London boroughs) the shortfall in places across the capital is expected to be around 70,000 over the next four years, largely concentrated in primary schools. London Councils contends that the Government allocation of funding is failing properly to take into account the existing capacity of schools in an area to meet any increase in pupil numbers. Because of the much higher pressure on school places in London in recent years, it has significantly fewer surplus places than other regions – already around 11,000 pupils, mainly in Reception to Year 2 classes, are being taught in temporary classrooms. And yet, In 2011/12, London has only been allocated 26 per cent of the available funding for school places despite having 64 per cent of the shortfall in places. If the Government listens to London and changes its funding formula, councils in other pressure areas will feel the pinch. http://www.londoncouncils.gov.uk/news/current/pressdetail.htm?pk=1281
How will families and schools be affected?
Nationally, capital funding, already severely cut over the 5 years from 2010, will be steered towards creating additional places in the areas of greatest need – meaning that for refurbishments and routine will be even more severely restricted. The impact of government support for free schools is uncertain – only a third of free schools in the pipeline are primaries, and few of those which have so far been opened are in areas with the greatest shortage of places.
In the areas with the greatest gap between pupil numbers and available places there will be an increasing proportion of over-subscribed schools making it more difficult to meet parents’ preferences. There will also be upward pressure on school and class sizes. Opinion seems generally to favour small classes and to be suspicious of larger schools.
Primary class sizes (KS1 and Reception classes averaged 26.9 in 2011) have been falling, but remain larger than in other comparable countries (in the 30 OECD primary classes contain on average 21.2 pupils) – also, unusually they tend to be larger than classes in Secondary schools. In London, Sutton LA has responded to the ‘numbers’ crisis by seeking support from the other boroughs for a campaign to lift the legal cap of 30 on Reception and Key Stage 1 classes. A recent study commissioned by the Department for Education while acknowledging that the overwhelming majority of parents, as well as most teachers and headteachers, believe that the number of children in a class affects the quality of teaching and learning, research evidence shows that “a smaller class size has a positive impact on attainment and behaviour in the early years of school, but this effect tends to be small and diminishes after a few years.” The report concludes that “increasing teacher effectiveness has greater value for money than reducing class sizes.” http://www.education.gov.uk/rsgateway/DB/SFR/s001012/sfr12-2011.pdf
Given the pressure from Councils and In light of evidence such as this It seems very likely that the Government will reverse the policy of recent years and allow class sizes to start drifting back up, despite parental opposition..
Much the same can be said for school size. In England, the majority of Primary schools have between 100 and 300 pupils (overall average 237), but larger schools have been growing (those with 400-600 pupils showing the greatest rise) while the numbers in smaller schools have been falling. There is, then, already an upward pressure on school size, and this can only increase over the next decade. As David Simmonds, chairman of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, says much bigger primary schools are now going to become “less unusual”.
Mumsnet has recently hosted a lively debate on the issue. Here again opinion is divided between those who hold that ‘small is beautiful’ and those who argue that large gives better value for money. See. http://www.netmums.com/coffeehouse/general-coffeehouse-chat-514/news-current-affairs-topical-discussion-12/720355-shortage-primary-school-places-creating-supersize-schools.html