Free schools could solve our capacity crunch

In the effort to expand Britain's primary schools, free schools need not be the enemy.

Share

A bulge in the birth rate means that 256,000 new primary school places will be needed by September 2014. Schools are already having to commandeer libraries and music rooms to cope with the influx, according to a report to be published by the House of Commons’ Public Accounts Committee today. Worse still, as the Coalition Government attempts to fulfil the mantra “every school a good school”, even poorly performing institutions are expanding.

So bleak a picture of parents’ chances of obtaining a decent primary school place for their children is hardly what the Education Secretary had in mind when he embarked on his bold and ambitious education reforms three years ago. “The department failed to identify in time the rising demand for school places,” the PAC rather damningly concludes. Indeed, the report is overtly critical of the fact that local authorities cannot push either academies or Michael Gove’s favoured “free schools” to expand the number of places they offer, with the result that only the dwindling band of state-run schools can be expanded to cope with the crisis.

Meanwhile, as the Opposition points out, the sadly scarce public money being ploughed into the free schools programme is often spent on creating new institutions in areas where there is no demand for extra places. Furthermore, in evaluating applications, no distinction is made between plans for secondary or primary schools, despite differing levels of demand.

In response, the Coalition claims – with some validity – that the seeds of the current crisis were sown under Labour. In the decade between 2001 and 2011, the population of England and Wales shot up at the fastest rate since the census began in 1801, yet the then-government’s capital programme concentrated on refurbishment rather than expansion of Britain’s schools.

Political one-upmanship aside, there is little to be gained from the blame game. Efforts must focus instead on expanding Britain’s primary schools, and doing so quickly. Nor need free schools be the enemy. Quite the reverse, in fact. If the academy chains, charities, voluntary organisations and community groups providing the impetus for the free school movement can be persuaded to concentrate their efforts in the areas where new institutions are most needed, the scheme could be very much part of the solution.

There is a real opportunity here. Wednesday’s Spending Review included plans for some 180 free schools in 2015-16 – the biggest tranche since the programme began. It would be no great challenge to encourage more applications from areas where demand more severely outstrips supply. The promotion of the free school programme to parents living in areas with the sharpest rise in birth rates would also help. And finally, the process for approving applications must be made more transparent to ensure that criteria other than formulaic requests for information about potential recruits in the first and second year are taken into account.

The Department for Education says that there will be 190,000 new school places this September, and that £5bn is earmarked for expansion until 2015. The Government’s infrastructure investment plans, set out amid much fanfare yesterday, also included £7.5bn to create 500,000 extra places by 2021. While welcome, it is far from assured that such sums will be sufficient. What is certain is that, if the money is not targeted to the right areas, Britain’s oversubscribed primary schools will continue to be so. The priority must, therefore, be to direct resources where they are needed. And, far from being the source of the problem, with a few simple tweaks the free schools programme is well placed to be its solution.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Mobile Developer (.NET / C# / Jason / Jquery / SOA)

£40000 - £65000 per annum + bonus + benefits + OT: Ampersand Consulting LLP: M...

Humanities Teacher - Greater Manchester

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: The JobAt ...

Design Technology Teacher

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Calling al...

Foundation Teacher

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: EYFS Teachers - East Essex...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Critics of Fiona Woolf say she should step down amid accusations of an establishment cover-up  

Fiona Woolf resignation: As soon as she became the story, she had to leave

James Ashton
 

Letters: Electorate should be given choice on drugs policy

Independent Voices
The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

Fall of the Berlin Wall

It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

Paul Scholes column

Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

Frank Warren column

Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

Adrian Heath's American dream...

Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes