Local Government Association wants a ban on free schools in areas with places surplus while squeeze in hotspots worsens

Janet Downs's picture
“The LGA wants a ban on any new free schools opening where there is a surplus of places. Most of the free schools opening this year are in areas under pressure, but not necessarily those under the most pressure. And five are in areas forecast to have surplus primary places within two years.”

BBC 3 September 2013

These remarks came as the Local Government Association (LGA) warned that 1,000 of the 2,277 local school planning districts will need extra places by 2015/16.

But free schools are not the answer – and academy conversion has made it more difficult for local authorities (LAs) to deliver extra places. Free schools are in the gift of the Secretary of State and LAs have no power to direct academies to expand.

LAs face another problem: if a school in an area where demand is likely to rise has been judged “Requires Improvement” or “Satisfactory” in the old Ofsted system then no money is available to expand it.

But according to the Daily Telegraph, it is Labour who is to blame for failing to foresee the demand for extra places and for allowing uncontrolled immigration. But the National Audit Office (NAO) said that during most of Labour’s term in office the pressure had been to remove surplus places. Nevertheless, Labour had recognised that there were shortage hotspots and had allocated £400 million a year from 2007-8 to 2010-11 to help cover local need for places, the NAO found. And the rise in birth rate wasn’t just because of immigration, the NAO said, but due to the number of women who started having children after delaying childbirth and changes in supprt for families.

None of this was mentioned in the Telegraph article which proposed a programme to build academies and free schools “in every nook and cranny”. It’s unclear how this scattergun approach would help if some nooks and crannies were in areas where there’s already a surplus. The Coalition is “hamstrung”, the article says. But it doesn’t say how Coalition policy makes it more difficult for LAs to provide school places where needed. If the programme is too costly then it should be paid for out of “public sector entitlements”, ie teachers’ pay and pensions, suggests the writer. But there’s no mention of the £1 billion overspend by this Government on the academies programme

The Local Government Association recommends that money to tackle the shortfall should be directed to LAs:

"We need to make sure that money comes through the local authority who are often ready with their shovels and diggers to get work under way immediately."

But requiring all new schools to be academies or free schools and the Department for Education having the final say where money is allocated means these shovels and diggers could remain unused – or used in areas where school places are not needed.

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