A good school place for every child?
The years 2001 to 2011 saw the largest ten-year increase in the birth rate since the 1950s. Primary pupil numbers consequently surged by over 400,000 during the last Parliament.
During this Parliament, the demand for primary places will begin to feed through to secondary schools. The mechanisms for creating school places changed significantly during the last Parliament. Are there going to be enough school places where they are needed?
Chart: Change in pupil numbers
Change in pupil numbers relative to 2010, thousands; dotted lines indicate projections to 2023.
Pressures are localised
Currently, there are many more places than pupils at both primary and secondary levels, but the balance between the two varies greatly across the country, within local areas and particularly school-by-school.
Shortages of places at popular schools exist alongside surplus places at others. And over the next five years, the expected growth in pupil numbers varies widely: in some places, numbers are expected to fall; in others, particularly urban areas, there are expected to be large increases.
Local authorities face statutory constraints
Ensuring that the supply of school places meets demand remains a statutory duty of local authorities; they also have to promote parental choice, diversity and fair access. In terms of meeting demand, local authorities are also subject to constraints under the Education Act 2011.
The 2011 Act requires that, where a need for a new school is identified, the local authority invites proposals to establish an academy or free school, with the decision over whether to go ahead ultimately taken by the Department for Education (DfE).
For schools that are already open – maintained or academy – expansion has become easier. However, local authorities cannot require academies or free schools to expand.
The result is that, other things being equal, demand for school places is likely to be met through the building of new free schools and academies, and the expansion of existing schools. At the end of 2014, 57% of secondary schools and 11% of primary schools were academies or free schools.
And funding pressures
The Department for Education is responsible for providing most of the capital funding to create new school places. The previous Government ended the Building Schools for the Future scheme of new school building and renovation and, in effect, shifted some of the funding to meet the capital costs of further places in areas of 'basic need', and the construction of new free schools.
Local authorities contend that they face unsustainable funding pressures: in a 2014 survey, three out of four responding authorities claimed that capital funding for new places has been insufficient; 38% had borrowed to finance the cost of new places; and half reported that costs had been met by drawing on other sources of funding, including that provided by DfE for maintenance of the existing schools estate.
Has Government policy helped to match places with pupils?
The previous Government argued that its reforms provided good school places where they were needed and wanted, with 70% of mainstream free school places in areas of basic need (where existing and planned school capacity exceeds forecast pupil numbers by less than 5%).
More than 90% of primary free school places are in such areas, but less than a quarter of secondary places are.
However, meeting expected local basic need is not the sole objective of the free schools programme; in approving applications, the DfE considers the extent of 'demand' not only for additional places, but also for better or distinctive provision.
The National Union of Teachers has argued that there is a 'school places crisis', brought on by the curtailment of local authorities' powers and the centralisation of decisions over where to build new schools.
The Local Government Association, meanwhile, has called for local authorities to be given "a greater role in judging and approving free school proposals to ensure that new free schools are established where they are needed".
A new way of ensuring supply meets demand?
There has been much debate about whether a reinvented 'middle' tier of oversight is needed to ensure accountability and coherent school place provision.
In 2014, the previous Government seemed to be moving toward this, with the appointment of eight new Regional Schools Commissioners to oversee academies and free schools in their local areas.
Over the course of the next Parliament, the focus of the debate about places is likely to shift from primary to secondary schools.
Will the predominance of free schools and academies at secondary level make it harder for local authorities to ensure that supply meets demand, since they cannot currently require such schools to expand? Or are fears about a lack of co-ordination overblown?
- Conservatives: open 500 new free schools with 270,000 places and invest £7bn to provide school places
- Greens: integrate academies and free schools in the LA system and cap class sizes at 20
- Labour: cap class sizes for 5, 6 and 7 year olds
- Liberal democrats: protect education budget in real terms and increase early year's pupil premium