Rachel Potter explores the challenges facing schools and councils as a surge in birth rate leads to a rising demand for primary school places
A surge in the birth rate between 2001 and 2010 has led to a big increase in demand for primary school places. The number of children born in England in that decade was the largest ten-year increase since the 1950s.
Local authorities and schools are working together to manage the immense challenge of ensuring that every child has a school place. However, by March 2013 the National Audit Office warned that the baby boom had led to “indications of real strain” in the school system, and that 256,000 places were still needed by 2014/15.
The Department for Education has set aside more than £5 billion in capital spending for this task, but councils and head teachers say this doesn’t go far enough. Despite the creation of 81,500 new primary places in the last two years, there is still a long way to go – and demand is expected to increase beyond 2015.
The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) says strategic planning across local authority areas is essential. It is a very local issue: some cities have seen a huge surge in demand, while the population in many rural areas is falling. Even within a city – Birmingham, for example – demand varies greatly from ward to ward.
Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT, says: “The swiftest and safest way to tackle pressure on numbers is to allow existing good schools in areas of need to expand under a carefully co-ordinated plan. The least efficient way is to pour capital funding into hundreds of tiny new schools randomly dotted around the country.”
Head teachers are making the most of existing space by bringing empty classrooms back into use, converting libraries, IT rooms or music rooms into classrooms, and creating ‘bulge’ classes where one year group has an extra entry form. However, no option is without its problems, and all of them have a financial impact.
The NAHT says the main budget impact is staff, but extra classes and extra children have other resource implications. “You can mange these challenges with 25-30 children in a class, but there is a break-even point where it’s not efficient to take extra children,” says a spokesperson. “There is also pressure on playground space, hall space and even movement around the school.”
Alan Wood is vice president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, which represents education directors in local authorities. He says the growth in demand was unprecedented and caught even the most effective councils out. Like schools, councils are taking a range of measures, such as:
• bringing former schools back into use
• building extensions and annexes to existing schools
• increasing the size of new schools.
Some councils are using community centres as temporary sites. The London Borough of Brent is using a former community centre as an annexe to an existing school, creating 180 new places. Another innovative idea is the creation of new schools with flats built on top of them, which is being developed in London boroughs including Westminster, Hackney and Islington. Building temporary classrooms on car parks and green spaces is an option, while Barking and Dagenham has converted an office block into a school.
Much of the challenge involves good estate management, Wood says, and a great deal of imagination is being used in making better use of existing facilities. Academies, free schools and church schools are also making extra places available where possible, despite being outside local authority control.
However, it all costs, and with a shortfall in government funding, councils are looking at their total capital programmes and diverting funding where possible. There is some money from housing developers, and much of the rest is being borrowed by councils. Ward warns: “The system has flexed and stretched. Some additional capital has been made available, but spread across the country it does not go far. Building a new two-form entry primary school costs between £12 and £20 million, even with a site.”
The Local Government Association (LGA) is calling for an end to the ring-fencing of budgets, which would give councils more flexibility over how they use the existing capital. Spokesman Councillor David Simmonds says: “Council taxpayers are currently footing large bills to deliver school places while government cash – already committed for schools – is tied up in red tape.” He says the extra capital funding is very welcome, but “it isn’t going to cover anything like the cost of providing these places”.
As councils and schools struggle to meet this challenge, education directors will be keeping an eye on the future: demand for secondary school places will rise dramatically a few years from now.