LAs face challenges in ensuring a sufficient future supply of school places, says DfE/LGA report

Janet Downs's picture
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.

A report, 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.
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Ricky-Tarr's picture
Sun, 28/10/2012 - 19:13

Actually, it would not be simpler. When local authorities built schools, they tended to take many years to do so (12 years for one school near me!) and spend millions of pounds on consultants.

Typically, the time from inception (a promotor group starting up) to opening for free schools is under three years. Academy chains are also rather more fleet of foot than councils have tended to be.

You remark that Westminster is not one of the areas in urgent need of primary places - the reason for that is that Westminster council invested time in helping a number of primary free schools to open.

Your post clearly demonstrates that LAs struggle to meet even the reduced role thay have now (commissioning). They certainly wouldn't be able to cope with anything more demanding.

Sarah's picture
Mon, 29/10/2012 - 08:26

The reason why it can be a lengthy process to establish a new school is often to do with acquiring sites, engaging the community around a proposal and the lead time for capital projects. The only reason why free schools have been able to be established more quickly is because the DfE has done away with any meaningful consultation with local communities and a significant proportion of free schools are opening on temporary sites often at some distance from the community they are intended to serve. What slowed down the last batch of local authority provided schools was actuallyl the centralised procurement associated with BSF - determined by central government not local government. This is where the big bucks were spent on consultants because of the need to establish Local Education Partnerships up front - again, not an LA choice.

LAs do not struggle with the planning and delivery of school places. Most have excellent arrangements in place to ensure they meet their statutory duty to provide sufficient school places.

If the government wants local authorities to be commissioners then they need the freedom to add capacity and decommission places to ensure provision is shaped to meet need. These powers have been removed by Gove making it far more difficult to get places into the system quickly. Most LA's are now planning to expand existing schools rather than open new ones to avoid this long term time-bomb whereby academies can simply refuse to expand and nobody but the Secretary of State can close them down.

agov's picture
Mon, 29/10/2012 - 08:35

"They certainly wouldn’t be able to cope with anything more demanding."

Ignoring, of course, the fact that LAs have been coping with things more demanding.

Naturally, improvements may always be possible. As usual you provide no real evidence or context for your sweeping condemnations (apart from you say happened near you).

Any idea why, as you claim, LAs "spend millions of pounds on consultants"? Could it be something central government compel them to do? Like as if they have to follow rules attempting to safeguard public money. Perhaps the rules don't apply to these amusingly entitled 'free' schools, what with them being handed public assets 'free' of charge.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 29/10/2012 - 12:35

Ricky - the figures used by the New Schools Network (NSN) to identify the top 20 LAs needing places by 2014/15 came from the DfE. It's likely that the DfE figures were based on those from the Office for National Statistics (ONS). There are two likely ONS sources for the figures: 2010-based projections released 21 March 2012, or the earlier 2008-based projections released on 27 May 2010. The intermim 2011-based projection has only just been released (on 28/9/2012).

Westminster was not one of the LAs identified by NSN as needing extra primary places based on 2010 or 2008 projections. Despite this, Westminster has allowed two free schools to open. Concerns about the proposed second free school were made in the thread below which pointed out that it was likely that familes on housing benefit would be moved out of the borough. It was likely that this policy, together with the fact that one free school (Ark Atwood) had already opened, would lead to surplus places:

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 29/10/2012 - 11:41

As you say, sarah, it wasn't local authorities who were responsible for the amount of money spent on consultants etc - it was policy from central government.

When BSF projects were cancelled by Mr Gove it was surprising that Partnerships for Schools (PfS) wasn't also disbanded at the same time. However, it continued until April 2012. The former Chief Executive of PfS resigned in May 2011 having set up a "social enterprise" company, Cornerstone, which will purchase "surplus" assets from the public sector, refurbish them and sell or rent them back to the state. This is discussed further here:

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Mon, 29/10/2012 - 12:09

Ignoring, of course, the fact that LAs have been coping with things more demanding.

Not very well, even in their golden age of wallowing in jacuzzis full of taxpayers' cash.

Now we live in thriftier times and more than half of secondaries are beyond LA remit, one hopes that education departments have been radically downsized and no longer have the capacity to do further damage to public education, even if anyone were to allow them.

It is possible that some Labour-run LAs will have kept the headcount of useless bureaucrats up, allowing them to sit around shuffling paper all day, while cutting frontline services such as meals-on-wheels for the elderly. Some Labour councils are, sadly, that cynical.

One more shove from Mr Pickles, though, should put an end to that nonsense.

Meanwhile, it's worth reminding ourselves that the picture painted by Janet and Sarah isn't altogether accurate. To hear them go on, one would think that in the "good old days" councils decided to open new schools and just went ahead and opened them, until wicked Mr Gove came along and insisted that academy chains and free schools should have first bite of the cherry.

In fact, the Education Act 2005 (passed by Labour) placed a requirement on LAs to invite other potential promoters to enter into a competition to provide any new secondary school. The Education and Inspections Act 2006 extended this requirement to primaries.

The Labour government hired one of the consultancy firms that were so often comfortable in bed with New Labour - Deloittes, if memory serves - to referee these "competitions". For a fee, of course. In the end, it was effectively Deloittes who decided who ran new schools.

It is against that background that the "Gove is undermining local democracy" narrative should be judged.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Mon, 29/10/2012 - 13:27


From Westminster Schools Forum Report on Place Planning November 2010

In September 2010 the Council provided an additional 90 reception places at three schools in the north to meet anticipated demand (of these, 30 places will be delivered in January 2011).These were provided as a ‘bulge’. The Admissions Manager advises that borough-wide demand is expected to plateaux at the current level (including the additional reception places) for the following two years before beginning to rise again in 2014 (September 2013 entry) and peaking in 2016 and 2017, i.e. in about 5 years time.

In September 2010 the Council provided an additional 90 reception places at three schools in the north to meet anticipated demand (of these, 30 places will be delivered in January 2011).These were provided as a ‘bulge’. The Admissions Manager advises that borough-wide demand is expected to plateaux at the current level (including the additional reception places) for the following two years before beginning to rise again in 2014 (September 2013 entry) and peaking in 2016 and 2017, i.e. in about 5 years time.

…..Major new developments likely to affect demand are Chelsea Barracks and Church Street (as a result of the Masterplan). Therefore, in addition to the required permanent provision arising from this years’ bulge, the Council needs to provide further flexibility in the north together with one, possibly two, Form Entry places in the south.

Proposed action

This falls into 3 categories.

1.The Council will consider permanent solutions to the bulge provision already made in 2010, which is at Robinsfield School, Essendine School and Christ Church Bentinck CE School in Cosway Street.
2.The Council is in discussions with ARK Academy for the provision of a 2 Form Entry ‘Free School’ in the Harrow Road area. It is anticipated that this will open with a Reception and Year 1 school in September 2011 probably with a reduced (1 Form Entry) offer, with the full offer of 420 places + Nursery in September 2013.
3.Additional places in the South could be provided by a combination of enlarging existing schools, and combining other schools onto fewer sites...

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 29/10/2012 - 12:54

Ricky - it's well known that BSF was a Labour project. It's also well-known that the procurement policy was unwieldy and some early build academies were "not good enough" (see report below).

I sense, however, that you are getting rattled again and resorting to tabloid-type exaggerations about a "golden age of wallowing in jacuzzis" and muddying the waters by talking about "useless bureacrats...shuffling paper all day, while cutting frontline services such as meals-on-wheels".

You are correct, though, in saying that Gove allows academy chains and free schools "should have first bite of the cherry". And while they gobble up most of the fruit hundreds of other schools are in buildings not fit for purpose.

Sarah's picture
Mon, 29/10/2012 - 13:21

Whilst a proportion of secondary schools have indeed converted the overwhelming majority of primary schools (more than 95%) are still maintained by local authorities. Not that you'd know this from the DfE website.

Yes, Labour did introduce the competition rules to try to expand diversity of provision (with debateable results) but at least there was the option for communities to opt for a community school maintained by the local authority if that's what they wanted. That's no longer an option - so Gove allows choice only as long as you choose what he wants you to have.

Where local authorities did not promote a community school it is they who took the decision about which promoter should be allowed to open a school - a local decision. Unlike the current arrangement where the Academy sponsor is sourced by the DfE and may have no knowledge or real interest in the particular community where the school is to be located.

I think it's this against which people will judge Gove's undermining of local democracy.

agov's picture
Tue, 30/10/2012 - 10:57

"their golden age of wallowing in jacuzzis full of taxpayers’ cash"

That was very funny Ricky. Absurd, of course, but very funny.

I see you are intent on blaming the victims, with LAs somehow guilty for having to follow rules imposed on them by central government. Smearing, distorting, ignoring most of the facts, together with the usual sweeping insults doesn't quite have the same comedy or factual value.

Good joke though.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 29/10/2012 - 14:00

Ricky - thank you for that information. It shows that in 2010 Westminster Council had already decided to take action to meet an anticipated demand which included one free school. The council also said it was considering enlarging existing schools and (oddly) combining other schools onto fewer sites (ie reduce the number of schools by joining small schools together to make larger ones).

But you missed this bit: after discussing the possible rise in demand the report says:

"Conversely it is possible that demand could fall as a result of changes to the Housing Benefit levels," although this was immediately followed by, "However it is not felt that this would have a significant impact".

That was in 2010.

In February 2012, one Westminster Housing officer told the Guardian:

"Westminster has accepted that there will be a 20% reduction of the school population across the borough as a result of these [housing benefit] changes. It is a drastic change. We have been visiting schools and nurseries to get that message out. The changes are huge, they are going to have a huge impact."

In February - the Council accepted a 20% reduction in the school population.

In September - a second free school opens.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Mon, 29/10/2012 - 15:25

I'll believe that 20% when I see it, Janet. Last time I looked, the council was operating on a "worst case" scenario of 17%. But in the real world, as opposed to the peculiar statistical dystopia you have been inhabiting recently, not all families affected by housing benefit cuts have children of reception age next September. Accordingly, the 17% will be felt right across the primary cohort, with a average reduction in class sizes from 30 to 25.1. No bad thing. IF it happens. Which it probably won't.

The second free school - CET - was in an area of rising demand. I think it opened with a 2FE reception class of 60.

Meanwhile, if your delusion that LAs are good at school procurement persists, try spending some time with the James Review.

On the issue of lead-times:

...a number of parties would be involved in the design process: the Local Authority; the school management team; technical advisers; and the contractor with their design team. The ... average length of time from the start of the education visioning process to the finalised design being 42 months.

That's 42 months just to get the plans drawn up..... still not a single brick laid.What were they doing all that time?

Local Authority plans were slowed down by complex strategic discussions about the future of education in their area ... We heard anecdotal evidence of long discussions, of consultants being retained to produce lengthy reports on the views of parents, of heated debates between parties and a number of other dysfunctional behaviours.

And there was some silly tokenism too

Staff and pupils in BSF schools had an unusually high level of input in the design process. The Review team were troubled by elements of this involvement. While it is clearly right to work hard to get excitement and buy-in from all stakeholders including students, we were not convinced that there should be significant input by pupils into the design for each school. The timeframes involved meant that, in virtually every case, the majority of those children that had actually been involved had left school by the time the school was built.

And the waffle had a deleterious effect on schools' outcomes

{The} level of input from the senior management team meant that attainment of pupils in their schools sometimes fell during and directly after the process.

But heck, the buildings themselves were awesome and award-winning, weren't they?

In 2007 the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) were commissioned by the Department to introduce Design Review Panels. Each BSF school design was reviewed by these panels. These panels judged all of the 63 early BSF designs, and these were shown to be inadequate even after several stages of re-design. Many of them were at to late a stage in the project process to be stopped, and were nevertheless built.

Yeah, but that was just the first 63. They must have learned from that experience, surely?

In 2009 after CABE lobbied the Department and PfS school designs were required to attain a ’pass’ or ‘very good’ standard. ..These design standards, though, had little effect. ..Thirty three percent of designs remained ‘Unsatisfactory’ or ‘Poor’ even at the final design stage.

Uh oh. Still, with the LAs in the driving seat, you can bet they got value for money eh?

The normal approach to this process was to start with the sum of money that had been released {by central government} and invite tenders on the best building that could be built for that money. The Review team were concerned that this seemed counter to most commercial (and domestic) tendering approaches which normally start with a clear and detailed specification of the building required and then invite bids on cost and time from contractors.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 29/10/2012 - 16:11

Ricky - the source of the 20% drop in pupil numbers was one Westminster housing officer. Is s/he not "in the real world"? Is s/he an inhabitant of a "peculiar statistical dystopia"?

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 29/10/2012 - 16:15

Ricky - In your attempt to smear local authorities in general (and yes, there are some which are worse than others - take Conservative Lincolnshire for example. Only 12% of Lincolnshire's primary schools had kitchens to make hot meals until Jamie Oliver shamed the county into providing them) you missed this part of the report:

"However, we must recognise that there are currently some effective and highly-regarded local and regional procurement arrangements in place. Many staff, for example in Local Authorities, VA bodies and Academy chains are skilled at procurement and contract management."

Thanks for the link but it didn't lead directly to the actual report. Here's the correct one.

However, as my post below (29/10/12 3.10pm) pointed out - the DfE/LGA report which is the subject of this thread (not BSF) found that many LA staff have been reallocated or made redundant. In some cases these redundant staff might be the very ones needed to advise on procurement. A recent BBC Panorama programme featured one such ex-LA procurement officer who said she would have advised schools not to enter into dubious contracts with IT equipment providers – contracts described by the BBC as “rip-offs”.

Sarah's picture
Mon, 29/10/2012 - 17:02


The James Review ignored all the capital activity in LAs that wasn't BSF.

BSF was an incredibly centralised bureaucratic model which most LAs didn't like - but it was the only significant money available.

The timescale was extended because of the procurement of the Local Education Partnership intended to deliver BSF programmes across an area over a ten year period. LA's did not design this system nor did most of them even want a LEP.

The excessive consultation was designed into the model centrally - LA's had no choice.

The programme was prioritised on the basis of standards and deprivation with an expectation that it would involve the entire reshaping of provision across an area (including taking out any surplus places). This sort of fundamental review of provision is complex and takes time.

What the majority of Local Authorities want is for central government to allocate the capital and then let them get on with delivering schemes according to local need. I see that the current government is making the same mistake with the PSBP with the added difficulty of funding it via PFI which will create big affordability gaps and financial risks over the long term.

BSF was entirely controlled by central government and its agencies - which part of that are you struggling to understand?

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Mon, 29/10/2012 - 16:51

It wasn't the figure I was taking issue with when I remarked upon the dystopia, but the inference you drew from it and the implication you made that it somehow removes the need for new schools.

It was as if the entire reduction in the school population would be concentrated on the next reception cohort.

In fact, for any particular school, at reception level, it would most probably result only in a marginal reduction of the extra fe they are currently accommodating in a portacabin in the playground as part of the 'bulge' strategy.

But since you raise it, anonymous council officials who talk to the Guardian shouldn't be regarded as reliable sources, no.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Mon, 29/10/2012 - 16:59

many LA staff have been reallocated or made redundant. In some cases these redundant staff might be the very ones needed to advise on procurement.

Yes, excellent news. No turning back the clock will be possible. Never again!

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 30/10/2012 - 08:06

Thank you, sarah, for pointing out that while LAs commisioned BSF schools they had to work within the rules of engagement set down centrally. Each BSF project had to go through a number of phases before building could begin. Then from 2006 each LA entering the BSF process had to produce a Strategy for Change. LAs were required to answer 56 questions - the guidance for these ran to 59 pages.

This is the point that Ricky does not seem to grasp. Neither does he seem to be aware that this present Government is making the same disastrous mistakes.

I noticed that the James Review floated the idea of Local Responsible Bodies who would decide on the type of investment needed locally. Sounds rather like local authorities.

Sarah's picture
Tue, 30/10/2012 - 08:38

The government has never published the outcome of the consultation on the James Review proposals which closed a full 12 months ago so the consultation was a farce. They'd already started implementing those things they wanted to implement and the rest of the recommendations seem to have fallen into a black hole.

Local authorities are left in the position of having one year allocations announced in mid December for programmes which start only four months later on a one year basis. This is a crazy way to allocate capital funding - many authorities have been pressing for the allocation to revert to 3 year allocations which allowed for sensible planning. It means that most capital works for schools (which often need to take place during summer holidays) cannot be delivered in the year in which the funding is allocated due to the time involved in procurement and planning - timescales entirely outside the control of local authorities which work within European procurement rules and national planning guidelines.

In fact the government were making in-year announcements for some of the capital funding streams which were time limited meaning that unless you had a project already with planning and tendered it was impossible to meet the timescales. It's shambolic and shameful.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Tue, 30/10/2012 - 09:24

LAs were required to answer 56 questions – the guidance for these ran to 59 pages.

Perhaps more than an afternoon's work, but certainly doesn't justify a 42 month average lead time.

This is the point that Ricky does not seem to grasp.

If your point is that the last Labour government was every bit as incompetent, sclerotic, managerialist and bureaucratic as the town halls, that is a point I grasped at least a decade ago.

Sarah -below - alludes to the shortage of capital monies for renovations. Has she noticed the deficit? The time to have mended the nursery block roof was when the sun was shining.

I appreciate not every school/LA could do this because the last government restricted its largesse to Labour constituencies (..oops, that should have been "disadvantaged areas").

As for new primaries - one thing that should make the free schools route attractive is that it permits access to a different capital funding stream. Any LA that doesn't explore this option because of ideological prejudice is cutting off its own nose to spite its face.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 29/10/2012 - 15:10

The report found that lower central government funding together with diverting resources to handle the legal and administrative costs associated with academy conversion meant that many local authority staff had been reallocated or made redundant. But somehow, despite less funding and fewer staff, LAs are being expected to cope with the challenges of fulfilling their statutory duties of ensuring extra places where needed and managing over-supply (the challenges associated with managing surplus places will be considered in a separate thread).

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 30/10/2012 - 16:18

Ricky (reply to post above 9.24 am) - I thought you'd read the James Review. If you had then you would know that the 56 questions with 59 pages of guidance were just for the Strategy for Change (SfC) report that LAs were required to do when they entered the BSF process:

"Each Local Authority entering the BSF process from then on [2006] was required to produce an SfC before they could proceed to the next stage, and PfS’s remit expanded to help Local Authorities to do this."

The Review went on to explain how "large and detailed" reports were required at every stage: "In total there were 14 documents related to the BSF process – 1,115 pages in all. In addition, there were 30 contractual documents – 2,622 pages in all."

The authors added: "Not surprisingly, this very complex process meant that the BSF system took significant time; it could be as long as four years (and sometimes longer) before any construction work started."

Your arguments that town halls were "incompetent, sclerotic, managerialist and bureaucratic" doesn't hold water. And you have ignored the bit of the report I quoted above (4.15 pm 29/10/12) which said the Review recognised there were "some effective and highly-regarded local and regional procurement arrangements in place." These included local authorities.

Sarah's picture
Tue, 30/10/2012 - 17:16

Ricky - the 42 month period was to conduct a procurement process entirely determined by PfS. It included the establishment of a LEP and feasibility work around sample schemes. Most of the schemes were PFI so involved detailed legal and financial negotiations. Many of the schemes required disposal of assets and very complex planning applications, not to mention school organisation proposals. All this work is governed by national regulation entirely outside of the control of local authorities. It's frankly ridiculous to imply that local authorities had significant control over the timescales. The phasing of BSF was entirely a matter for PfS and DCSF.

BSF was indeed aimed at the most disadvantaged areas and based on standards rather than building need so it's illogical then to suggest that local authorities, many of whom never entered the BSF programme, had significant capital funds available to them to deal with condition related issues. Added to which a significant proportion of the funding was given direct to schools who often chose not to prioritise condition issues but instead pursued more attractive projects to improve curriculum spaces, build sports halls or add teaching space for vocational subjects etc.

As for primaries - relying on the availability of free schools to address basic need is, as the DfE officials have acknowledged a very risky strategy because there is no guarantee that any free school application will be successful. And free schools are not designed as a vehicle for local authorities to address shortfall in provision - they are intended to be driven by parental demand. The decision making windows for free school applications make them far too speculative to rely on where there is a known shortfall of places. The DfE has made it quite clear that this is NOT a funding stream to address basic need.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Wed, 31/10/2012 - 01:17


The free school route worked for Westminster.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 31/10/2012 - 08:12

The significant amount of resources (money and staff) allocated by Westminster Council to establishing free schools has resulted in two schools in temporary accommodation. The first of these attracted controversy particularly around lack of publicity and it needs to stay in temporary premises for longer than first thought. The second had to reduce the number of places it initially offered and complained that the Council was responsible for the school not being able to open in its planned premises.

Sarah's picture
Wed, 31/10/2012 - 08:54

Most of the free schools approved have been in London - is it really that suprising that a school proposed on the doorstep of DfE's offices should be approved? DfE policy is very London-centric and forgets that there's a big, often rural, world out there.

However I can only go by what DfE officials are telling us - that the free school programme cannot be relied on as the default answer to demographic growth. Particularly when demographic growth is not the primary criteria for the establishment of free schools and the guidance issued by DfE last month on opening new schools says that LA's will have to meet all the capital, site and start up costs for new schools (whereas free schools which are not the result of LA proposals get up to £250k of start up funding).

And what happens if the LA cannot find a proposer that aspires to open a free school in precisely the location and with precisely the same size and ethos that it has determined the community needs? There are many parts of the country where there have been no free school applications whatsoever. No, DfE are quite clear that a sponsored academy is what they really see as the default solution - Free Schools are considered to be a very small part of the overall equation which might be made to fit in a very small number of instances but it's a risky strategy to adopt as a means of addressing basic need at a time of rapidly expanding numbers.

Actually around the country what's happening is that LA's are expanding existing schools rather than going down the new school route at all if they can avoid it.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 31/10/2012 - 09:10

sarah - perhaps someone should tell the New Schools Network that DfE officials say that free schools can't be relied on as the default answer to meeting the need for extra places. According to Rachel Wolf, director of NSN, providing places "where there currently are none" is one of the two reasons for setting up free schools (the other being "to help underperforming children"). She says the "overall picture is confused". She's right there:

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Wed, 31/10/2012 - 09:36


Yes indeed, premises are difficult to find for free schools. But nothing ever gets achieved without overcoming those difficulties. The free schools have a strong record of overcoming them. Both of the Westminster cases you cite did so.

You very often appear to cite practical difficulties or problems as evidence that an activity or policy is fundamentally misconceived. This isn't so. Overcoming obstacles is the stock-in trade of people who make things happen - whether in the commercial world or the public sector.

One thing you haven't mentioned in relation to the Westminster school place planning is that Westminster has merged its education services with those of two other boroughs - Hammersmith & Fulham and Kensington & Chelsea, thus saving around £12m in back office costs.

The new Tri-Borough arrangements make a lot of sense operationally - particularly in areas such as alternative provision, schools commissioning etc.

There is always a lot of borough boundary crossing in London and the Tri-Borough area makes more sense as a unit.

Your reading of the paper that gave rise to this thread portrays staff as anxious and bewildered people struggling to work out how they can perform simpler tasks and fewer responsibilities than they used to perform. There may be some (little) truth in this, and certainly 'anxiety' was a word used. But heck, it's their job to work these things out. Many already have and are quite confident about commissioning in the future.

Ben Taylor's picture
Tue, 30/10/2012 - 18:16


When you say, "free schools are not designed as a vehicle for local authorities to address shortfall in provision" I do not think this not corresponds to the expectation in statute.

Under 2011 Education Act, section 37, Schedule 11 Establishment of new schools;

"6A Requirement to seek proposals for establishment of new Academies(1)If a local authority in England think a new school needs to be established in their area, they must seek proposals for the establishment of an Academy."

Well I would understand that to mean it could be a free school since they are actually academies.

They are as you say also a mechanism for alternative forms of demand than the LA such as from parents.

I wouldn't know about the DfE comment perhaps you could say some more about that.

Sarah's picture
Tue, 30/10/2012 - 23:52

Ben - whilst it's true that a free school and an academy are identical in law once established the means of establishing them are different and your understanding of the DfE's position is incorrect. Whilst it is technically feasible for a local authority to seek a free school proposer it could not establish the school to its own timescale - it would have to wait until the free school application was successful via the normal free school application process. The DfE at a recent LGA conference made it clear that this was too risky a strategy for establishing new provision and could lead to the LA failing to meet its statutory duty to provide school places. The capital available for free schools is limited and therefore the proportion of applications granted has no bearing on demographic need. DfE have made it clear that Basic Need capital allocation to local authorities annually is to be seen as the means of funding new sponsored academies - and it is they, not free schools, which are intended to be the default provision for new places.

Ben Taylor's picture
Wed, 31/10/2012 - 13:12

Thanks that is interesting. I think LAs prospecting for schools could consult on potential free schools if they are intended to be academies, they fall within that definition.

Do you think the statement made by DfE at the conference exists or is going to as some sort of official written document such as guidance, a bulletin etc.?

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Thu, 01/11/2012 - 08:43

Whilst it is technically feasible for a local authority to seek a free school proposer it could not establish the school to its own timescale – it would have to wait until the free school application was successful via the normal free school application process.

The free school application process takes just under five months, with confirmation of shortlisting after two or three months. By LA standards, that's a sprint.

Sarah's picture
Wed, 31/10/2012 - 15:10

The LGA conference report will be published shortly and should capture that point as it was made a number of times. I noted that more than one authority said they were going to pursue free school and sponsored academy solutions in tandem so that they weren't left without any provision if the free school proposal didn't come off.

The guidance says 'They (LA's) should be clear from their school place planning about the type (e.g. mainstream, special educational needs, alternative provision), age range, gender and capacity of the academy/Free School they wish to see established'. So this 'need' may be incompatible with 'parental demand'. Parents may want a new secondary but the LA may be seeking a primary, for example. So the free school option would rely on a match between parental aspirations and LA view as commissioner.

The recently published non-statutory guidance on establishing new schools makes it quite clear that the DfE expects LAs to meet all the costs of establishing new schools from their own resources other than the £25k set up cost (which goes to the sponsor for legal costs). There is though an intriguing statement, 'the Department will discuss with the local authority on a case by case basis to identify and agree the most appropriate mechanism to meet these (set up costs). Until longer term funding arrangements are agreed, the expectation is that local authorities will contribute to these costs'.

I think there should be greater clarity on how LA's can 'commission' free schools and who is expected to meet the costs, if indeed the DfE does intend this to be a means of meeting demographic need.

Sarah's picture
Thu, 01/11/2012 - 08:49

Ricky - applications are not always successful first time round and the majority are unsuccessful full stop. Hence the likelihood that LA's will not be able to rely on a free school approval and will have to pursue sponsored academy status in parallel - a complete waste of time and resources. And even where they are successful the DfE do not appear to be willing to take on the financial burdens associated with a free school which is being backed by the LA. Nowhere in the guidance does it say that the start up costs of such a free school will be funded centrally. So where is the advantage?

Sarah's picture
Thu, 01/11/2012 - 09:36

From the DfE website FAQ's on Free Schools

Can a local authority set up a Free School if they have identified the need for pupil places?

No, although they can, if they wish, invite a group of individuals to submit an application for a Free School to the Secretary of State. Where this would meet a basic need for new places, we would expect the local authority to consider how the capital costs would be met in the light of its statutory responsibilities for school provision.

So it's clear that the LA has no control over the process for establishing a free school as a means of meeting basic need but if they happen to be able to persuade a 'group of individuals' to apply for the right sort of school of the right size in the right area they will have to meet the full capital costs (and according to non-statutory guidance the revenue set up costs too) but where the LA hasn't courted such an application the capital will be met.

Does that strike anyone as inconsistent? It's not a sensible means to plan additional pupil places.

agov's picture
Thu, 01/11/2012 - 09:58


Just a question. Suppose a LA does 'invite a group of individuals to submit an application for a Free School to the Secretary of State' and it is approved. Could that group of individuals then ask the LA to change the 'Free' school into a maintained school?

Sarah's picture
Thu, 01/11/2012 - 12:06

Agov - no, the only circumstances in which any new school can be a maintained school is where no academy sponsor or free school proposer can be found. Given the DfE's missionary zeal to convert all schools to academy status I think it highly unlikely that could ever be the case. Although it's still technically possible to create a new VA school I don't think there is any legal mechanism to convert an academy into a mainstream school under any circumstances whatsoever. It's a one way trap door.

A community that wants a community school cannot have one.

A community that wants its community school to remain a community school cannot influence that outcome as the decision is in the hands of governors or the secretary of state only.

Academy status is the default solution, the magic bullet, the panacea (except we know that's not true at all given the number of failing academies).

agov's picture
Fri, 02/11/2012 - 06:27

Okay, thank you Sarah (- I just like to check the small print!).

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