We are running out of school places. A Freedom of Information request by the Labour Party has revealed that 18 per cent of local authorities have run out of classroom capacity. In Northumberland, young children are being taught in a double-decker bus and in Bristol a redundant police station now provides classrooms. 78 per cent of councils say that will have to provide more primary school places within the next three years and a half of councils claim that they will need more secondary places.
Official government statistics forecast that by 2023 there will be 8,022,000 pupils in English schools. This will represent an increase of 879,000 on the current school population of 7,143,000. In addition to the issue of who is going to teach the extra children, where are they all going to sit? The Local Government Association has calculated that it will cost £12bn to fund the extra accommodation. Meanwhile, Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, has told the BBC Today programme (13th Jan) that the Government is committed to spending an extra £7.35bn by 2021 – a considerable shortfall on what, apparently, is required.
In December, the leader of Surrey County Council announced, dramatically, that “we may not be able to guarantee every Surrey child a school place in September 2015…The scale of demand means that our funding is simply no longer enough.”
How on earth did we get into this mess? The politicians, of course, in the best tradition of playground spats, are blaming each other.
It is all Labour’s fault, claims Schools Minister Nick Gibb. They “failed to plan for the future, cutting funding for school places during a baby boom while allowing immigration to get out of control”. It is all the Tories’ fault claims shadow Education Secretary, Tristram Hunt, blaming “David Cameron’s irresponsible schools policy that prioritises money for new schools in areas where there are already surplus places”.
If the Coalition Government is not blameless, nor is Labour. It will not do for the Opposition to blame free schools and academies for failing to provide places in areas of greatest need. Not only are free schools twice as likely, compared to all schools, to be rated “outstanding” by Ofsted, they are, according to DfE statistics, more likely than other schools to be situated in areas with a shortage of places and in areas of deprivation. In any case, only around 2.5 per cent of pupils attend free schools.
They hardly impact on the overall numbers. Similarly, only ten per cent of primary schools have academy status with a large number of these in areas of deprivation and failure. Short term extra investment in free schools and academies does not explain away the growing shortage of school places, as Labour would have us believe. At the heart of the problem is the simple failure of long-term planning by successive governments.
As is so often the case with playground rows, both sides are in the wrong. Neither the current coalition government, nor its Labour predecessor, has properly addressed the long-term schooling implications of a growing population. More importantly, politicians in general have never fully grasped that in any order of spending priority children, especially the youngest, should come first because they matter the most.
As the general election approaches we are going to have a lot of promises about the future. The truth is that unless we fully provide for the upbringing and schooling of our infants there we will not be a future worth having.