Number of primary pupils in classes of 31 or more doubles in five years

National Audit Office report reveals classrooms are filling up because of shortage of school places

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The Independent Online

Primary classrooms are bulging at the seams because of a shortage of school places, according to a report from public spending watchdogs published today.

Figures show the number of children aged between five and seven taught in classes of 31 or more children has more than doubled in the past five years - from 23,200 to 47,300. Class sizes of more than 30 for infants were made illegal by Labour in 1997 - except in exceptional circumstances.

The report, by the National Audit Office, says there is a need to build 256,000 new school places by September 2014 because of the biggest bulge in the birth rate for nearly half a century.

“Although the Department for Education has increased the funding it provides to local authorities and there has been a net increase of almost 81, 500 primary school places in the last two years, there are indications of a real strain on school places,” says the report.

The report goes on to say that - whilst the Government’s free school programme (under which individuals can set up their own schools) is providing an extra 24,500 places - they are not necessarily in the areas facing the most acute shortages.

“The department’s free schools programme will increase the number of places available, although it is not primarily intended by the department to deliver places in areas of shortage,” it says.

“Geographical distribution is one factor that the department considers in assessing applications to open free schools, along with others such as parental demand.  Some free schools may therefore open in areas which already have a surplus of places.”

Figures show that - of the 45 free schools that opened in September 2012 offering 24,500 new places  - 58 per cent were in local authorities with a shortage of places.  In addition, only 8,800 places were in primary schools - the area suffering the worst shortages.

“Access to a school place is a right for every child yet in some parts of the country there are not enough school places, said Margaret Hodge, who chairs the Commons public accounts committee - responsible for scrutinising government spending.

“Demand is likely to rise between 2012 and 2014/5 by 240,000 in the primary sector (the rest is in the secondary sector) - 37 per cent of this in London.  However, the overall number of primary places has increased by only 81,500 between 2010 and 2012, suggesting there is a long way to go.

“Families should not be penalised for living in areas of high demand.”

The report adds that at least 81,900 children in 98 authorities are being taught in temporary accommodation - up from 74,000 in 69 councils in 2010.

Government sources said that Labour had cut the number of primary school places by 200,000 in its last six years in office - whereas the coalition had created more than 80,000 places in two years and was investing £5 billion into new school places over this Parliament’s lifetime.

Free schools, they added, were “helping meet the shortage of places”.

“Labour reduced the number of places available even though there was a baby boom under way,” said Schools Minister David Laws. “We have already created 80,000 new places to deal with the shortage of places left by the last Government and there will be more places to come.”

However, Kevin Brennan, Labour’s schools spokesman, said: “Michael Gove’s first job as Education Secretary is to provide enough school places for children - he is failing in that duty.

“David Cameron’s Government needs to address the crisis in school places they have created  ...  They are failing to deliver on new school buildings - one in seven parents can’t get their child into the primary school they want.”