Free schools could solve our capacity crunch

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

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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.

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