Failing on recruitment and places

Written by: Dr Mary Bousted | Published:
Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary, Association of Teachers and Lecturers

The government is failing badly in two of its core duties – teacher supply and school places. Dr Mary Bousted outlines the problems

It is reasonable to assume that the government is fully aware that children start school aged four or five and transfer to secondary school aged 11.

So it is strange, therefore, that although primary pupil numbers have risen dramatically, and are due to rise a further eight per cent between 2015 and 2024, the government appears to have given little thought, and to have no coordinated plans, to increase the number of secondary school places to accommodate the rise in the pupil population which is already hitting schools and is due to rise by 20 per cent over this period.

Councils are having to step in where the government fears to tread and are devoting significant amounts of extra funding to create more school places. Reading Borough Council has borrowed £34.5 million and Essex County Council has had to supplement government funding for extra school places by £38.7 million from its own resources.

Obviously, there is a limit to the amount councils can borrow, or take from reserves, to fund extra school places, and there are warnings that a tipping point may have been reached.

One in six secondary schools is now at or over capacity. By 2024, 547,000 more secondary school places will be needed than in 2015. But local authorities are in a catch-22 situation. They have a legal duty to ensure there are sufficient school places, but no powers to force academies and free schools, which now make up 64 per cent of secondary schools nationally, to expand their pupil intake.

Roy Perry, chair of the Children and Young People Board of the Conservative-controlled Local Government Association, argues: “If they (academies) are not willing to expand, then powers to create new schools should be returned to local authorities themselves if they are unable to secure high-quality free school sponsors in their communities.”

This is, of course, entirely rational and reasonable. But the government won’t have it. Driven by ideological zeal, adamantly opposed to local councils and cavalier with their responsibility to parents, education ministers continue to insist that the new schools built to accommodate the pupil bulge must be free schools or academies. They say that no school can be built and run by local councils, however good their educational support services.

Just imagine the absurdity of a parallel policy for policing in which the police had the duty to enforce the law but no power of arrest or detention. There would be a public outcry. Yet the inability of local councils to directly build and run schools, and so meet the rising need for extra pupil places, always appears to come as a shock to parents and the wider public. And indeed to the media.

Whenever I explain this conundrum to reporters on local or national radio stations (usually on the day pupil places are announced) I am met with amazed incomprehension.

Recent reports by the Committee of Public Accounts and the National Audit Office have heavily criticised the government’s policy on teacher supply. One of the most devastating criticisms made in both reports is that the government does not understand the difficult reality that many schools face in recruiting teachers.

Teacher supply is in crisis. The target allocations for 14 out of 17 secondary subjects were missed last year (2014/15) and the recorded rate of vacancies and temporarily filled positions in state-funded schools doubled between 2010 and 2014 from 0.6 per cent of the teaching workforce to 1.2 per cent – a figure the Department for Education accepts is unlikely to reflect recruitment difficulties fully.

A government has two key responsibilities for the state education system. One is to create enough school places for the nation’s pupils. The other is to generate an adequate supply of teachers. At present this government is failing, and failing badly, on both counts.

  • Dr Mary Bousted is general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. Visit


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