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

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application Developer

£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: how to spell BBQ and other linguistic irregularities

Guy Keleny
 

South Africa's race problem is less between black and white than between poor blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa

John Carlin
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own
Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

The secret CIA Starbucks

The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

One million Britons using food banks

Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

How to run a restaurant

As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
10 best tote bags

Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

Paul Scholes column

I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England