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Election experts

There’s more to primary school place shortages than the cost of free schools

So, was this your first choice of primary school? Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

The furore over a looming primary school place crisis has intensified during the election campaign, with Labour accusing the Conservatives of causing a crisis in primary school places because of the high costs of their free schools policy.

The issue is already beginning to bite hard: initial figures from local authorities across the country on primary school national offer day showed that in many authorities, far fewer children were offered their first choice school than in the past.

If – as the pundits suggest – the May 7 election produces another form of coalition government, tensions surrounding what to do about the provision of places for all are likely to increase along with the ongoing debates into local accountability over education. Should they form part of the next coalition, the Liberal Democrats have already stated their intention to fight for a Lib Dem education secretary and to get rid of unelected school commissioners who are in charge of overseeing academies – moves that will be bitterly disputed should they enter into another coalition with the Conservatives.

Labour has squarely placed the blame for the issue of a school place shortage at the door of the coalition’s free school policy. According to freedom of information requests to local councils submitted by the Labour party, four in five of the new free schools opening this academic year had not filled all their places on opening with just two of the new mainstream primary free schools pupils up to full capacity. Labour has also pointed to the rise in children between five and seven being taught in classes with at least 31 children.

This has undoubtedly caused more than a frisson of fear for most teachers, not to mention parents, desperate to get their children into a good local school. Conversation headings on the Mumsnet discussion list over the past five years indicate rising levels of concern with the whole system responsible for allocating places.

Population explosion, or just bad planning?

Establishing whether the current situation is down to bad planning by the Department for Education (DfE) is not straightforward. The UK population as a whole is set to increase to 73m by 2028, a rise of 10m on the 2011 census. This is largely down to a combination of longevity – more births than deaths – and migration. Of the 808,000 births in the UK in 2011, there were 612,000 births to UK born women and 196,000 to non-UK born women.

This combination, according to the Local Government Association (LGA), means that schools are reaching a tipping point and will struggle to find space for almost a million more pupils over the next decade. Its analysis showed that funding the extra places for the predicted 900,000 pupils will cost in excess of £12 billion.

The government has already committed £7.35 billion to create extra school places, but the LGA say that this will still leave a shortfall. It says that while local authorities created 90,000 school places in 2012-13, an analysis based on an online survey of chief finance officers among its members, revealed that a further 130,000 places would still be needed by 2017-18. This was in addition to the 80,716 new secondary places needed by 2019-2020.

An erosion of local control

There’s no doubt that the free school programme has been a costly one. Capital funding needed to set them up has been estimated at £6.6 billion per free school almost double the original planning assumption by the DfE. But it is the system for the funding and planning for free schools and the gradual erosion of local authorities in planning for new schools that appears to have led to a situation which is ripe for implosion.

‘Dare to be wise’ says the emblem of the West London Free School in Hammersmith. Ian Nicholson/PA Archive

An authority can direct the expansion of community and voluntary controlled schools, but not others. The process for establishing and funding free schools is completely outside the control of local councils. Although many try to work with potential free school sponsors to make sure that new schools are established in areas of need, so far this has taken place on a very ad hoc basis.

Political divisions

The issue of school places will be a key priority for the new government. The manifestos are mixed on this issue: while the Conservatives show no inclination to slow down their erosion of the powers of local government when it comes to school places, and UKIP make little mention of it in relation to education, Labour want to return power to local authorities along with The Greens. The Liberal Democrats are very specific on where they stand in relation to the issue: proposing to give democratically accountable local authorities clear responsibility for local school place planning. They also want to scrap the rule that all new state-funded schools must be free schools or academies.

The crisis over school places is not as Labour suggests, solely rooted in the free school programme – although there is little doubt that this has exacerbated the problem. It stems from the ideology of the market that has infused education policy since the Education Reform Act in 1988. An ideology that supposedly places parental choice above any other consideration – a poignant irony in the case of the recent debacle over The Durham Free School in which all parental choice was removed when the government shut down the school.

The Conservatives are not the only party to buy into the idea of schools as a marketplace: Labour and the Lib Dems have supported elements of it to varying degrees. What is certain is that turning back the clock now and restoring some semblance of local control with regard to school places planning will be both costly and complex. It will also require the DfE to relinquish its stranglehold on control of the opening new free schools and academies. Such a move would represent a substantial departure from present practices.

It is only by admitting that the wholesale application of market principles in education is not working in the interests of parents and their children – that the the biggest crisis in English education can be avoided.

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