“Managing potential over-supply” will create more headaches for LAs than providing more school places, says DfE/LAG report

Janet Downs's picture
Local Authorities (LAs) have a statutory duty to manage a potential surplus of schools places but managing this possible over-supply is a source of great anxiety, says a report commissioned by the Department for Education (DfE) and the Local Government Association (LGA).

The ability of LAs to manage the number of school places locally is hampered by Government policy which encourages academy conversion and establishing free schools. This is because:

1 Academies can increase their size without consulting with LAs

2 Free schools can open without reference to LAs.

The report described two scenarios:

1 Where a Local Authority must manage the closure of a “poor” school when it becomes unviable because a better-performing school has expanded.

2 Where a Local Authority needs to respond to a situation where a well-performing school is put at risk because other schools have expanded.

Scenario One raised these questions:

1 How can LAs manage the smooth and speedy transition of pupils remaining in the “poor” school to places in other schools?

2 How can LAs work effectively with other schools, including academies, to find sufficient places for the displaced pupils?

3 What authority (LA or DfE) is responsible if the school threatened with closure is an academy or free school?

Scenario Two raised this question:

How can LAs deal with the possible closure of a school when this is not in the best interests of pupils or parents? This may happen where:

1 Pupil numbers in the area are static or declining.

2 Most parents send their children to local schools.

3 All local schools are good or better.

4 Where a rise in the number of selective places or in schools with a similar academic emphasis would narrow choice.

Both scenarios raised a further question: how would LAs respond to the possible closure of a school when school numbers are expected to rise in a few years time and the places available in the school threatened with closure would be needed?

The report noted that in the autonomous system envisaged by the Government it would be schools not the LA which would decide “the future pattern of provision”. It also found that academies themselves recognised that a self-regulating system is unlikely to work in these scenarios. And academies reported that in these circumstances collaboration would decline as schools became more competitive.

So, in a future autonomous, supposedly “self-regulating” system, the type of provision in an area will not be centrally planned or managed but will be the result of decisions made by individual schools. When local authorities make judgments they are supposed to act in the best interests of all local children. In an autonomous situation, the question is whether individual schools will consider any pupils that are not theirs and take action which could put a neighbouring school at risk or reduce choice locally. This has already happened in Beccles where a new free school threatens to rejoice choice for all local pupils – two schools can’t offer the same range of subjects and one large one.

And what, if anything, will local authorities be able to do about it?

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Sarah's picture
Mon, 29/10/2012 - 20:21


What the government is basically saying is they don't actually care about over supply - regardless of the cost of maintaining surplus places and the waste of resources it represents. This, to them, is the price of choice.

All fine and dandy in theory but what it actually means is that some schools may be allowed to wither on the vine and struggle to deliver a good education because other schools have been allowed to expand and at a time of austerity we will be wasting tax revenue maintaining half empty schools. The cost of this will prevent us addressing the shortfall of places where that's a real problem.

Local government still has the statutory duty as commissioner but with no actual power to reshape provision to match need. It's useless to be a commissioner without the power to decommission or to expand provision in the places where it is needed most.

Of course it's the best possible scenario for Gove who can then blame local government for failing to do the impossible job he has set them.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Mon, 29/10/2012 - 21:12

Thank you for highlighting this report Janet.

While I'm glad to see that the DFE are beginning to think seriously about the issue of oversupply - which is indeed a issue of great concern and which will cause substantial problems for schools - it is worrying that their insight into the issues is so weak.

This is what the report says:
"There are two different scenarios that need to be considered. The first is the role that the local authority has in ensuring the smooth transition for pupils and parents in the event that the expansion of a successful school causes a poor school to become unviable, in which case the logical outcome would be the closure of the poorly performing school. The second scenario is how a local authority should respond to the less common situation where school expansion places well performing schools at risk, or where the closure of a school is not a desirable option. "

In this paragraph its obvious that the DFE still think that parents generally make rational decisions about secondary schools for their children based on objective assessments of the quality of schools. It makes no reference at all to the role that cohort effects play in the decisions which are made which is naive mistake. It also shows no insight into the reality that under the current system of inspection a school with declining numbers and a cohort which is becoming more challenging due to pupil movement will be lowly graded no matter how good it is.

This paragraph indicates the authors lack of ability to reify what they are saying - i.e. they are commentators on education - they do no understand it.

There are other fundamental mistakes.

For example when considering the circumstances in which it may be appropriate to protect a school from closure the authors do not understand the realities of rural England where secondary schools are far apart and transport costs are very high.

The report then seems to go off into a domain which is almost entirely aspirational because it makes many assumptions (I assume without realising it is doing so) and floats away into assertions about how things will be without engaging with the reality that there will still be problems schools and there may well very suddenly be serious sinks schools in some areas.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 30/10/2012 - 08:00

Rebecca - you're right to point out the importance of the cohort - attainment levels on entry, disadvantage and so on. This raises a third scenario, which was not considered in the report:

What would be the response of a Local Authority to the possible closure of an unpopular school which is nevertheless doing a good job in difficult circumstances? A school may be under-performing and therefore unpopular not because of the inadequate education on offer but because the intake is skewed towards the bottom end.

This is the case with many secondary modern schools in selective areas and the problem is worsened where these secondary moderns are situated on the border of counties with fully-comprehensive schools. If parents of children who were not offered a place in a selective school opt for a fully-comprehensive in a neighbouring county over the local secondary modern, then how should the local authority respond?

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Tue, 30/10/2012 - 08:36

And, of course, when you close a school in a socially deprived area (or any area) you lose all the facilities which go with it.

When we closed Ehenside in Cleator Moor all the night classes went (there were lots) and the large venue for community events went. There used to be scores of dogs in school on a Wednesday evening at the dog training classes - I do wonder what has happened to the behaviour of dogs in Cleator Moor! People from disadvantaged backgrounds generally don't have cars to get to other venues so the loss of access to night classes is substantial.

I know none of this will be considered at all but it really should be. It matters. Schools are essential community assets here in Cumbria and when they shut there usually isn't anther one people can walk or get a bus too as there are in urban areas.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Wed, 31/10/2012 - 09:09

Looking at this report again (and I'm only skim reading - so please do correct me if I'm wrong), it doesn't seem to actually get into the practicalities of secondary school closure. It does seem to have some insight into fact that it's not easy and that there can be issues of staff retention but there's a lot more to it than that. So I'll add some points here.

Most obviously schools cease teaching all students at a particular point in time. How would you like it if your child got to the end of year 10 - half way through their GCSEs and was told to move schools? The'd have all different teachers at a time when there was usually complete continuity, they'd be unlikely to be able to continue with their same subjects or if that is managed then they'd probably be on different syllabuses and with classes who'd studied different things and so on. It would demolish the GCSE prospects of that year group so it's not done. While a year 10 will continue into year 11 at a closing school the year 9 below them will move schools and typically at the same time year 7 will not start. So you're left with a secondary school with only years 8,9 and 11 in it.

Of course you have to cut staff at that point and when you cut staff you can no longer run parallel sets where you did before. So students end up setted for several subjects together which is a particular problem for year 11. This is how I ended up teaching mixed ability classes in maths - because we setted our children for literacy and math just had to cope. It had to be one way or the other.

As well as the problem of maintaining staff you have the problem of keeping staff. Why should they stay? In the old days when LAs were strong plans would be made for each member of staff. These days it's a chaotic free for all to logically the staff are better off leaving. In practice they stay more than you would expect because they care about what happens to the kids but it's pretty seriously inhumane for them and its an insecure and challenging situation for school management.

Closure are often managed through school mergers, but these are challenging to achieve. School identity matter for children - the two groups need to be integrated carefully and actively. Merging two sets of staff is a painful and challenging process as obviously, for just one example, you will start that process with two heads of department in every subject.

There are substantial costs associated with school closure. How will they be funded?

Obviously there will be objections to the closure and these days how can it actually be achieved when a group of parents can simply reopen the school as a free school?

I was expecting to see some of this kind of detail in a report which addresses this issue. Why is it entirely absent? Has anyone at the DFE got any experience of school closures?

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Wed, 31/10/2012 - 10:00

For all the reasons Rebecca mentions (... and the some) closing schools should be very rare and only a last resort.

Sadly, the attitudes frequently surfacing here (often expressed by Janet) that any surplus, any classroom that isn't full-to-bursting, represents a shocking waste of public money and that parents should have little or no choice which school their children attend, are precisely the attitudes that led to far too many schools closing under the last Labour government.

It was a policy driven from the centre - many local authorities were forced to close good and successful schools they didn't want to close. In other local authorities, careerist bureaucrats fell over themselves to please their Whitehall masters. The scale of the devastation is incredible.

Between 2002 and 2008, Labour closed more than 1700 schools.

Even more incredible was the total incompetence both central government and LAs displayed in forming their projections. Many entirely missed the impact of immigration. During the early part of 2008, Labour were closing a school every working day. Just at that moment, the birthrate reached its highest figure for a quarter of a century. We are now, having to cope with the shambles Labour created, putting bug-huts into playgrounds while just down the road the old (closed) school is struggling to sell the 'luxury flats' built on the site.

Wait for the new school funding arrangements.... watch this space.

agov's picture
Wed, 31/10/2012 - 10:36

"the attitudes frequently surfacing here"

Again with the sweeping allegations, ignoring what Janet (and others) actually say.

"It was a policy driven from the centre"

When was policy on the appropriate level of school provision not driven from the centre?

"Many entirely missed the impact of immigration"

You got that bit right. Well done.

"Wait for the new school funding arrangements…. watch this space."

Is that the one safely postponed until after the next election?

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Wed, 31/10/2012 - 11:31

Our old school funding arrangements were that funding was distributed to best meet the actual costs incurred by schools. All these 'formulas from the centre' are a complete nightmare created by disconnected people who have no idea how naive they are.

I don't think closing schools should be rare. Populations fluctuate. Personally I would like to see community primaries being hubs of local community resource and these being protected. However primaries will still need to open and close in urban areas with many schools and variable populations. However I disagree that having lots of very small secondaries creates choice because I live in the real world and I know that in general small secondaries seriously reduce choice for students because you simply can't offer the variety of education a typical population of students need by the age of 14.

Small secondaries are shockingly expensive per child - the Cumbria statistics make that obvious. If we spend our money on these then other things which could be done are not done. However sometimes there is no cheaper way of doing things and this is very common when you have a rural community and the costs of transporting students to different schools are very high.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Wed, 31/10/2012 - 13:05

David Laws and Rory Stewart managed to thrash out Cumbria's small schools short-term funding worries last Monday. Duncan Fairbairn looked happy.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 31/10/2012 - 14:23

agov - I fear that these "sweeping allegations", along with straw men, misrepresentation of what people actually say, generalisations backed up with no evidence, rhetorical questions, gasps of incredulity (I'm waiting for, "You cannot be serious!"), emotive language, exaggerations ("the scale of the devastation is incredible" - are we talking Hurricane Katrina?) and unverified statistics are what RT considers to be measured argument.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Wed, 31/10/2012 - 15:54

Again with the sweeping allegations...


There's a good example in the comment that leads this thread. This time Sarah, not Janet:

..they don’t actually care about over supply – regardless of the cost of maintaining surplus places and the waste of resources it represents.

And who could ever forget Janet opposing a free school opening in Essex with a PAN of 150 in an area where that year there was a shortage of 67 places on the grounds that 150 was larger than 67, and this over provision would cause a surplus capacity problem to return?

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Wed, 31/10/2012 - 15:13


....are we talking Hurricane Katrina?

Much, much worse....

Hurricane Katrina destroyed 110 schools in the New Orleans area.

Labour destroyed 1704 up to 2008.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Wed, 31/10/2012 - 16:10

"Duncan Fairbairn looked happy"

Don't expect me to be reassure by that comment Ricky! But I will look into what's happened with an open mind as soon as some analysis about the implications for schools is available.

agov's picture
Thu, 01/11/2012 - 10:22

You are of course correct Janet.

By the way, you are also correct in your detections of Ricky getting rattled - I've noticed too. It must be difficult for him to keep thinking up spurious justifications for whatever Gove's latest imbecilic announcement may be. I just hope he is being paid for all his hard work, he deserves it.

agov's picture
Thu, 01/11/2012 - 10:45

But Sarah was making quite a specific point about the supply of school places and their cost.

Is there any other area of government where you think it's a good idea to throw money like confetti and wait to see what happens? I would have thought you were all in favour rigorous business disciplines with strong budgetary discipline.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Wed, 31/10/2012 - 12:29

Our old school funding arrangements were that funding was distributed to best meet the actual costs incurred by schools.

That will cause a few hollow laughs among those headteachers who remember the schools funding crisis of 2003-4 where schools were in uproar about shortfalls in funding requiring them to lay off staff. You may remember Charles Clarke touring the media studios demanding LAs stop siphoning off the money and demanding the return of the "missing millions".

That brouhaha led to the development of the ringfenced Dedicated Schools Grant and the Minimum Funding Guarantee to make sure it didn't happen again.

However, LAs found ways round the Labour government's best-intentioned and redistributive policies. For instance, as late as 2008 it was found that local authorities were only distributing 40% to 50% of the money they received for children eligible for free school meals to the schools those disadvantaged children actually attended. Had the LAs not swiped the money off them, the additional funds following a secondary school kid from a disadvantaged background would have been 50% higher.

And we're supposed to believe that LA bureaucrats and socialists are supposed to be more 'caring' about the disadvantaged than Tories? Puhleese......

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Wed, 31/10/2012 - 12:55


I don’t think closing schools should be rare. Populations fluctuate.

Not really. The trend line is upwards in most LAs. England's population increased by 5.7% between 1999 and 2009. In that latter year, the ONS published predictions that the 70m mark would be passed by 2029.

Of the 152 LAs, the overwhelming majority have rising populations, not declining ones.
There are, of course, some areas which will decline, probably no more than 25 to 30.

For the vast majority, the challenge will be providing enough school places, not coping with surpluses.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Wed, 31/10/2012 - 16:07

It's only the population of the area close to the school which is relevant - especially for primaries. The population of an LA or the whole country is irrelevant.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Wed, 31/10/2012 - 16:40

And how often will the population close to a school diminish markedly in an urban area?

I can see how it could increas - developers could build housing on what was previously industrial land.

But how often do streets suddenly become depopulated?

I know it can happen - I saw that series of Newsnight reports on Salford. But what's being debated here is Janet's contention that closing schools is a bigger problem than providing new ones.

I just can't see it with population rising, albeit not uniformly.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 31/10/2012 - 16:46

Ricky - you're shooting the messenger again. The actual words from the DfE/LGA report were: "Although ensuring that the supply of places expands to meet need presents a number of challenges for local authorities, it is managing potential over-supply of places which is a greater source of anxiety for local authorities at present."

"A greater source of anxiety" = "more headaches" = "a bigger problem than providing new ones".

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Wed, 31/10/2012 - 16:55

"I just can’t see it with population rising, albeit not uniformly,"

That's why experience is useful.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Wed, 31/10/2012 - 12:56

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 31/10/2012 - 15:47

Ricky -reply to post above re schools "destroyed" under Labour: "Between 2002 and 2008 Labour closed more than 1700 schools".

Government figures show there were 21,456 maintained primary and secondary schools (including 14 CTCs) in England in 2002. In 2008 there were 20,588 maintained primary and secondary schools (including 5 CTCs and 83 academies) in England. The difference between the two years in 868 not 1700.

Of course, it may be that 1700 school were closed but re-opened as amalgamated schools, or some were closed and reopened on the same site but under a different name. If this is the case, then the 1700 figure is theoretically correct but actually the number of schools was not reduced by 1700 as the figures show.


The same misleading rhetoric could be applied to the present Government. "Nearly 50% of secondary schools closed in England under Coalition!" would theoretically be correct because schools that convert to academy status are closed before re-opening as academies. But the statement would, of course, be misleading.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Wed, 31/10/2012 - 16:16

No, Janet.

The difference isn't accounted for schools " reopened on the same site but under a different name". There's a much simpler explanation: these were new schools opened elsewhere. Nobody ever said that no new schools ever opened under the last government. Of course they were.

I wonder whether you might think of revisiting the unfounded assertion in the headline that suggests that managing potential over-supply will create more headaches for LAs than providing more school places in the coming years in the light of the ONS 2009 population projections and this Guardian article showing that there are only 17 local authorities not experiencing population growth?

The population of England and Wales increased by 3.7 million over the past decade – the biggest rise since national records began in 1801, according to initial results from last year's census.

Buoyed by increased life expectancy, sustained immigration and robust fertility levels, the number of residents jumped 7.1% from 52.4 million in 2001 to 56.1 million in 2011 – the highest growth rate of the past century, said the Office of National Statistics (ONS). .......

....In a very few parts – 17 local authorities including Barrow-in-Furness and Sunderland – the population has bucked the general trend and decreased.

....The under-fives have swollen by 400,000 since 2001 to 3.5 million. "That is partly to do with the children of migrants but also partly to do with increasing fertility of UK-born women," said....


Rebecca Hanson's picture
Wed, 31/10/2012 - 16:19

See above (post at 4:07).

Sarah's picture
Wed, 31/10/2012 - 16:14

Janet is quite correct. Many of the closures will have been technical closures designed to create amalgamations of schools - often infant and junior schools sharing school sites where the result is a junior school making use of the existing buildings - or three to two tier restructuring where middle school buildings are retained but a number of establishments 'close'. There have also been amalgamations which have formalised the federation of groups of small schools working together with a single head where a single school organisation on split sites has been perceived as a more stable option for the long term.

In other cases there have been significant numbers of closures of small rural primary schools where numbers have become unsustainable - some rural LA';s have large numbers of schools with fewer than 50 pupils. You can expect this phenomena to increase as the impact of the new funding arrangements takes effect.

In other cases closures have been a solution to entrenched performance issues where there is sufficent other local provision to make a closure a means of improving outcomes for children locally.

So whilst the demographic is now increasing in primary and so closures due to falling rolls may become less frequently seen there will always be a need to reshape provision around the changing needs of the communities they serve. It's facile to say that because numbers are going up there won't be any school closures in the future. And who knows what will happen to the birth rate in the very long term.

Even in LA's which are experiencing a growing population in net terms there are likely to be pockets where numbers are still decreasing. There is a particular effect being noticed where numbers in urban areas are starting to rise more rapidly and in rural areas decline more sharply - this may have at its root the economic climate, costs of housing, impact of welfare benefit changes etc.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Wed, 31/10/2012 - 16:33

there have been significant numbers of closures of small rural primary schools where numbers have become unsustainable

Significant in what sense?

Not as a proportion of the total number closed. In every year from 2000 to 2008, the number of urban maintained primaries closed was much larger than the number of rural ones (in 2001 it was nineteen times larger, but that wasn't the norm). Certainly more than twice as many urban schools as rural ones were closed without the provision being replaced.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 31/10/2012 - 16:41

Thank you, sarah, for confirming my suspicions that Ricky's figures were based on technical closures. Ricky, I've notices, says that I made an "unfounded allegation" about the difficulty that LAs are likely to face when managing over-supply of school places. He's in danger of shooting the messenger - it was the DfE/LGA report that listed these difficulties.

The DfE/LGA report considered two areas of difficulty - coping with a shortfall in places and over-supply. The former would, of course, be caused by population growth as described by Ricky. The difficulties in dealing with shortfall were discussed on another thread.

It's odd, then, that population growth which would have been a factor in the former scenario is introduced in a discussion about the difficulties of LAs dealing with a surplus of places. Diversion tactics, perhaps, to deflect discussion about potential problems that LAs will have in managing over-supply when the Government has made it difficult for reasons given in above.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Wed, 31/10/2012 - 23:05

I'm not sure the hysterical 'anxieties' of council officials are really the best basis for public policy decisions. Whatever the anxiety level, the demographics suggest that shortage, not oversupply is going to be the real challenge.

Sarah's picture
Thu, 01/11/2012 - 08:42

Over-egged as usual Ricky. 'Hysterical anxieties' - hardly. Just an acknowledgement that the current system does not give local authorities the means of taking decisions about the shape of provision across an area, which creates a real challenge for its role as a commissioner. To be able to commission provision securely you need to be in a position sometimes to decommission existing services. Whilst of course the shortage of places is a very serious concern there will always be some challenge around taking provision out. It will remain a very difficult thing to do especially where the unpopular or failing provision happens to be an academy.

It isn't the volume of openings/closures necessarily which dictates the scale of the challenge - as anyone who has sat in a public meeting arguing for a school closure can tell you.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Thu, 01/11/2012 - 08:42

Well Ricky - as I've said before - here in West Cumbria we went from 10 schools to 9 and were planning to go from 9 to 8 which was appropriate and clearly going to increase the quality of provision. This government has stopped the merger and is instead opening another school. We have decreasing not increasing numbers of secondary students as is the case in many areas.

In the short term therefore it is reasonable to assume that school will have about 25% less students than they planned to have although of course the losses will be more in some schools and less in others. Losing 25% of your students means losing 25% of your staff and a lot of your courses, significantly reducing the options for students. Other LAs are facing similar problems - especially where free schools and UTCs are opening.

When students lose they options they enjoy and which motivate them and the staff they like they become disaffected. Managing student engagement is the key challenge we face here.

I realise it's nothing to you - sat there in London - having not a clue how these situations really affect students and teachers and that you think council officials are just being hysterical and are not accurately representing the stresses being transmitted to them from heads. I find it very sad that you choose to denigrate these officials rather than to bother to listen to and understand them.

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