Local authorities sound alarm over secondary school places

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Place concern: As many as 125,000 children face missing out on a place at secondary school in the next five years unless new school places are created, the LGA has warned (Image: Adobe Stock)

With the number of secondary-age pupils continuing to rise, half of councils in England are at risk of being unable to meet the increasing demand for secondary places within next five years. Pete Henshaw reports

The start of the new academic year has brought with it renewed warnings about an impending crisis in secondary school places – with half of England’s councils sounding the alarm.

The Local Government Association (LGA) says that 49 per cent of councils are “at risk of being unable to meet rising demand for secondary school places within the next five years”.

The number of students in England’s state-funded secondary schools increased by 29,670 in the last year. It is the third year in a row that rolls have increased – and with primary school numbers also continuing to rise, secondary schools can expect further increases in the coming years.

In total, as of January 2017, statistics from the Department for Education (DfE) show that there are 3,223,090 secondary pupils and 4,689,660 primary pupils in England.

Across all schools, there are 110,000 more pupils than one year previously.

The LGA is warning that more than 125,000 children face missing out on a secondary school place by 2022/23. It bases the claim on analysis of DfE school capacity figures published in April and local pupil forecasts.

It adds that unless more secondary school places are created, 12 local authorities will face a secondary school place shortfall in 2018/19. This will rise to 23 in 2019/20, 41 in 2020/21, 57 in 2021/22, and 66 in 2022/23.

Councils have a statutory duty to provide enough school places in their areas but at the same time have no power to force academy schools to expand. Nearly two-thirds of secondary schools are now academies.

As such, the LGA, which represents the interests of councils across England and Wales, is calling for councils to be given powers to force academies and free schools to expand if additional places are needed and voluntary agreement cannot be reached.

It also wants councils to be given back powers to build new schools in areas where they are needed, “if it is logistically impossible for local academies or free schools to provide the places needed”.

Until now, the rising demand for school places has affected primary education, with an additional 600,000 places being created since 2010.

A report by the National Audit Office (NAO) earlier this year said that despite the progress made, another 420,000 school places would be needed in the education system by 2021.

The NAO report found evidence of spare capacity in some areas but under-capacity in others. It also warned that primary capacity tends to be easier to increase than in secondary, where places are more complex and costly to provide.

The NAO report added: “The need for extra places is highest in London and the South East. Meeting this need will be difficult because primary schools have often already been expanded where this was straightforward, and because it is more complicated to increase capacity in secondary schools as they require specialised facilities, such as science laboratories.”

The impact of growing pupil numbers and falling numbers of full-time teachers at secondary level is already being seen, with average secondary school class sizes having increased from 20.1 in 2015 to 20.8. The pupil-to-teacher ratio now stands at 17.6, up from 17.4 in 2015.

Richard Watts, chair of the LGA’s Children and Young People Board, said: “As the LGA has previously warned, the school places squeeze is now about to hit secondary schools. Without action, more and more families will face growing uncertainty when trying to secure their child’s secondary school.

“Councils have worked hard to help create almost 600,000 additional primary places since 2010. This is no small feat. However, as those children move on to secondary schools, the majority of which are now academies, securing new secondary places in the areas where they are needed is becoming increasingly difficult.

“Councils are working with one hand (tied) behind their backs to help as many pupils as possible receive a place at their first choice school.

“If we are to avoid this looming secondary school places crisis, councils need to be able to force existing academy schools to expand if voluntary agreement is impossible and must be given back powers to open new maintained schools themselves.”

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “There is a very simple solution to the school places crisis. Local authorities must have their powers to open new schools restored – it beggars belief that while councils have a legal duty to ensure there are sufficient school places locally, Conservative reforms mean they no longer have the power to open new local authority-maintained schools.”

He continued: “In addition, councils must have the authority to direct academies and free schools to expand where they have capacity – a power they do have in respect of maintained schools.

“The school places crisis will not be resolved unless action is taken to correct these damaging policy failures. The market place is failing education and the secretary of state has a responsibility to step in.”


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