Is Labour to blame for the lack of school places?

Janet Downs's picture

“The last government is to blame for the shortage of school places,” thundered the Telegraph before mounting an attack on Margaret Hodge, chairman of the Public Accounts Committee which had criticized the Coalition for failing to ensure enough primary school places.

The attack on Hodge linked to an earlier Telegraph article which accused her of hypocrisy. But the Telegraph had been in error and had published an apology. It’s unclear how the Telegraph can justify repeating an accusation it’s already said was wrong.

But that aside, is there any truth in the statement?

The author said the last Government was to blame because it reduced school places when the population of England was growing. It’s true the birth rate began to rise after 2001 but the National Audit Office (NAO) found there’s still a surplus of primary school places in England although there are shortage hotspots..

The NAO said local authorities didn’t begin to forecast a rise in pupil numbers until 2008. Before then the challenge had been to remove surplus school places. However, there were local pockets of growth in the school population. So did Labour ignore these shortage hotspots? Not according to the NAO – the Labour government provided core capital funding “totaling £400 million a year from 2007-8 to 2010-11 to help cover local growth in need for places”.

It’s true the Coalition has increased core funding for new places to £800 million a year from 2011/12 to 2014/15. But this should be viewed in the context of the 60% cut in capital spending made by the Coalition in 2010. The Telegraph article mentioned the former but forgot the latter.

The Telegraph also blamed the shortage on “Labour's open-door immigration policy” (see Addendum for net migration figures). But it’s the rising birth rate which has fuelled demand for more school places. And the increase in births is not entirely due to immigration. It’s a combination of factors, said the Office for National Statistics (ONS)* in 2010.  These include:

1 Women born in the UK in the 1960s and 1970s who delayed their childbearing to older ages and are now catching up.

2 Changes in support for families (for example maternity and paternity leave and tax credits).

3 Increases in the numbers of foreign born women with above average fertility.

It's is true, however, that the proportion of children born to women born outside the UK has increased.  This is due to the increase in the number of non-UK born women and a decreases in the number of UK-born women in certain age groups eg ages 30-34.  But the ONS pointed out that some women born outside the UK are UK-nationals (eg daughters of British service personnel stationed abroad).

So, the Telegraph said Labour had done nothing to address the shortfall in school places when it had committed £400 million pa from 2007-8. It also said the increased school population was solely due to immigration when it was only one factor in the increased birth rate.

The article also repeated a false accusation against Margaret Hodge which the Telegraph has had to correct before. To make one mistake may be regarded as a misfortune; to make it twice looks like carelessness.


* Download Frequently Asked Questions: births & fertility 2010 here (scroll to bottom of page).

ADDENDUM: Net migration from 2002-2012.

Net migration (the difference between immigration and emigration) has fallen since 2010 when it was at the highest level of the decade: 252,000, FullFact discovered. A Conservative campaign poster (2013) contains a chart which implies more people left the UK than arrived in 2011 and 2012 thanks to the policies of the Conservative (sic) Government. FullFact said this was misleading – net migration had fallen but it hadn’t reached the stage where fewer people entered than left.

Net migration in 2012 had dropped to 153,000 – the same figure as in 2002. In 2011, net migration was 215,000. Only two Labour years exceeded this figure:

2004: 245,000 (when A8 countries such as Poland joined the EU)

2007: 233,000

The lowest net migration figure in the last decade was 148,000 in 2003.

FullFact discovered in August 2011, when headlines trumpeted a 20% rise in immigration, the numbers arriving had been “broadly maintained since 2004.” There had been a rise in net migration levels but this was due to fewer people leaving which in 2011 was “at its lowest since June 2005.”

UPDATE 2 July 2013

The original article has been amended.  I've added an extra paragraph about the rise in the proportion of children born to non-UK born mothers.  My sloppy editing of the original article mixed up two separate points about the overall rise in the birth rate and the rise in proportion of children born to non-UK mothers.  The resulting illogical paragraph has now been corrected.  Apologies.


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