Local authorities (LAs) have a statutory duty to ensure a sufficient number of school places. This is usually done by studying birth data and other information such as planning to decide on possible future demand.
In the past, extra places could be provided either by persuading existing schools to expand their pupil admission number (PAN) or by building a new school. Now, however, where a new school is needed, LAs must act as commissioning agents to persuade potential providers to establish this new provision.
, commissioned by the Department for Education (DfE) and the Local Government Association (LGA), identified these challenges:
1 Academies are their own admission authorities and may use their autonomy to refuse to accept additional pupils.
2 Academies may require incentives to persuade them to accept more pupils. This would be “particularly problematic in view of the more tightly constrained capital budgets”.
3 Although free schools are viewed as one solution, the report found that “the very late notification” of some proposals was “counter-productive” and resulted in much “abortive work”. The report said that free schools were “often more related to the desire to meet parental choice than to ensure the provision of sufficient places at the right time and in the right place for the area”.
4 The process of finding an acceptable solution could be “both time-consuming and inefficient”.
According to the report, LAs believed that providing a discussion forum, establishing good relations with schools and engaging with possible providers would help lessen these risks. But the report said this approach hasn’t been “fully tested at the sharp end”. It gave two examples of LAs which were proactively seeking groups to establish free schools which fit in with their respective strategies for growth. One of these is Westminster which has “invested significant officer time and council capital funding in facilitating the establishment of Free Schools to meet local needs”. However, Westminster is not one of the areas needing extra primary places
although projections show there would be a shortfall
of 352 secondary places in 2014/15. Westminster already has 12 state secondary schools which raises the question whether allocating substantial staff time and capital funding to create free schools (plural) to deal with a shortfall of 352 places is good value for money.
The Education Act 2011 requires that LAs must seek proposals for the establishment of an academy if new schools are needed. LAs, then, must seek tenders from providers in order to choose the one which best fits local needs. If this lengthy and costly process doesn’t attract suitable providers then local authorities can establish free schools. So we have a ludicrous situation where LAs must, in a time of reduced government grants, spend council taxpayers’ money on commissioning. If the LA fails to find a suitable provider, it will then have to go through the bureaucratic process of establishing its own free school which requires “evidence of demand”, public consultations, setting up a free school trust and so on. After all that, the free school may, or may not, be approved by central government.
How much simpler it would be if local authorities could just build their own schools.