Councils 'powerless' to tackle secondary school capacity crisis

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
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Local authorities are warning that as many as 134,000 students could miss out on a secondary school place by 2023/24 unless action is taken now to create more places. Pete Henshaw reports

More than half of England’s local authorities are at risk of not being able to meet the demand for secondary school places in the next five years.

It means that around 134,000 children face missing out on a secondary school place by 2023/24, according to an analysis by the Local Government Association (LGA).

However, the LGA says that councils are powerless to act given that so many secondary schools are now academies and outside of their control. Councils cannot direct academies to expand and are not allowed to open new maintained schools.

The LGA forecast is based on an analysis of 135 of 152 local authorities in England with education responsibilities. It uses data from the Department for Education’s School Capacity Survey, which covers numbers of school places and forecasts of pupil numbers until 2023/24 for each local authority.

The pressure on secondary school places will increase as the bulge in the primary school population begins to hit secondary schools.
The number of secondary school pupils in England now stands at 3,258,451. In the last year alone (January 2017 to 2018), there has been an increase of 35,361 students, according to the latest DfE figures published in June.

Overall, there are now 8,74 million pupils across all types of school in England (up 66,000 – or 0.8 per cent – in the last year).

The LGA says that unless more secondary school places are created, 13 local authorities will face a secondary school place shortfall in 2019/20, with this number rising to 25 in 2020/21, 46 in 2021/22 and 54 in 2022/23.

By 2023/24, a total of 71 councils (52 per cent) face not being able to meet demand for 133,926 places, it says.

The LGA represents 370 councils in England and Wales and is campaigning for the government to give councils the power to direct academies to expand – a power they currently only hold for maintained schools.

The LGA is also calling for government to give councils the power to open new maintained schools where that is the local preference. It wants ministers to hand back the responsibility for making decisions about opening new schools to councils.

Councils have already created an extra 600,000 primary places since 2010. However, the LGA says that councils have much less influence in the secondary sector.

It states: “Councils have created extra primary school places by expanding existing council-maintained primary schools, where councils have the powers they need to require schools to expand. In some cases they have also commissioned places in academies and free schools.

“However, with two-thirds of secondary schools now academies, councils have very limited ability to fulfil their statutory obligations to provide school places.”

Anntoinette Bramble, chair of the LGA’s Children and Young People Board, said: “No family should face uncertainty over securing their child’s secondary school. But the reality is we face an emergency in secondary school places where the number of pupils is growing at a far faster rate than the number of places available.

“This is why councils need to be given the powers to help solve this crisis. As a starting point they should be allowed to open new maintained schools and direct academies to expand.

“It makes no sense for councils to be given the responsibility to plan for school places but then not allowed to open schools themselves.

“It is only by working with councils, rather than shutting them out, that we can meet the challenges currently facing the education system.”

Commenting on the LGA’s analysis, Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of School Leaders, said: “The lack of school places is an issue which isn’t going away. The massive increase in pupil numbers over the next few years, particularly at secondary age, will only make it harder. Integrated local planning of school places across maintained, academy and free schools is vital to ensure sufficient provision in all areas of the country.

“Local authorities are responsible for ensuring sufficient school places but the powers and resources necessary to do so have been removed. They are unable to require academies to expand, for example. In an increasingly fragmented school system we lack a co-ordinated approach to place planning. Instead it’s haphazard; decisions are being made in isolation and new schools and new school places are not always being commissioned in the areas they are most needed.

“Until the government sorts its act out and comes up with a national strategy to guarantee there are enough school places for every child in England, parents and children will always be unsure that the system will give them what they want.”


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