The Department for Education (DfE) “does not know” whether the £5 billion it is putting towards meeting the demand for school places will be enough, MPs have said.
With around 256,000 new school places needed by September 2014, an investigation by Parliament’s Committee of Public Accounts has accused the DfE of having “failed to adequately plan for the increased demand”.
It says that without enough resources to provide new places, some local authorities may be forced to use school facilities such as music rooms or libraries to cope, while others could expand class sizes beyond the legal limit of 30.
Critics have blasted the DfE for “ploughing” money into free schools in areas where there are surplus places.
The DfE, however, has blamed the previous administration for not reacting to rising birth rates, arguing that the coalition has more than doubled funding for new school places.
In the 2011/12 school year, there were 6.8 million four to 16-year-olds in state-funded schools in England, with 600,000 in reception classes. However, the report says that the number of reception-age children has been rising for some years. It states: “Neither the DfE nor local authorities anticipated how much and where pupil numbers were rising early enough and therefore failed to adequately plan for the increased demand.”
The DfE has allocated £5 billion up until March 2015 to capital funding, but MPs warn that this also has to fund building maintenance and the free schools programme.
The report adds: “We are concerned that the scale of financial contributions expected from some local authorities for new school places introduces wider risks to the on-going maintenance of the school estate and may exacerbate pressures on local authorities’ finances.”
Another problem, the report says, is that local authorities can direct maintained schools to expand or close “in response to fluctuations in local demand”, but do not have this power over academies or free schools.
Furthermore, the DfE “does not sufficiently understand the risks to children’s learning and development” that could come if facilities such as music rooms are used as regular classrooms, or from the delays to school maintenance, MPs say.
Committee chair, Margaret Hodge, said that while the DfE believes that the money it is contributing for new school places will cover all the costs, in 2012/13, nearly 65 per cent of authorities were having to use their maintenance funding to pay for extra places. She added: “256,000 new school places are needed by September 2014, but the DfE does not know whether the £5 billion it is contributing will be enough to pay for them or even spent to best effect.
“The DfE does not understand the costs for local authorities in delivering places or the relative value for money of different approaches around the country.
“The DfE failed to identify in time the rising demand for school places. Growth in demand is concentrated in particular areas of the country. The inability of local authorities to require academies and free schools to expand further constrains them.”
Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said the report was a “devastating critique of the government’s competence”.
She added: “The government neither understands the cost of providing extra school places, nor the effect on children’s education of the lack of places.
“By recklessly ploughing on with its hugely expensive and unproven free schools and academies programme, the government is struggling to find the money for the extra school places which are urgently needed.”
The DfE said that while the government allocated £1.9 billion to creating new places between 2007 and 2011, the coalition has allocated £5 billion between 2011 and 2015.
Schools minister David Laws added: “(The) report correctly states that the Department ‘failed to adequately plan’ for the rising population, but does not explain that the responsibility for this failure lies with the previous schools secretary, Ed Balls, who ignored the rising birth rates reported by the Office of National Statistics.”
The report comes as the Treasury has said it will give £21 billion towards educational infrastructure during the next Parliament. This will partly go towards creating 275,000 primary and 245,000 secondary school places between 2015 and 2021. For more on the Treasury's spending projections for the next Parliament, see SecEd's report by clicking here.