Your school's got no room for extra pupils? It’s time to build upwards…

30th October 2015 at 00:00
Minister’s idea for expansion is inspired by New York skyscraper schools

This is an edited version of an article in the 30 October edition of TES. To read the full article, subscribe to TES 

Schools struggling to meet the demand for additional pupil places should construct higher buildings, schools minister Lord Nash has told TES.

The minister pointed to New York City, where he said schools were housed in “skyscrapers”, as an example of what could be done. His comments came in a bullish defence of the much-criticised government response to the shortage of school places – a situation he said was actually in “pretty good shape”.

Lord Nash also claimed there was now cross-party acceptance of the role that free schools should play in meeting the need for new places. “I think we’re [doing] well on [pupil places],” he added. “We spent £5 billion in the last Parliament on this and we’ve been given £7 billion assigned for this Parliament. I think that brief is in pretty good shape.”

Earlier this month, TES revealed that councils across the country were considering creating super-size “titan” secondary schools with between 12 and 16 forms of entry to cope with the surge in student numbers. But space for new schools is at a premium, particularly in London.

Now Lord Nash, speaking in his first interview as a minister, has suggested that headteachers should consider adding more storeys to school buildings to accommodate extra pupils. “We are going to have to see schools going up,” he said. “The idea of schools only being on one or two floors is not essential.”

He stressed that he was not expecting schools to build their own tower blocks, but said: “If you go to New York, there are skyscrapers where the first five floors are offices, then there is a factory, then there is a state school, then there’s a charter school."

But he added: "We have to be careful they are put in appropriate places – it has just got to be done sensitively.”

Lord Nash’s comments came as the plans for “titan” schools were compared with the post-war boom in cheap high-rise housing by the new chair of the Independent Schools Association. Dr Sarah Welch, principal of Gosfield School in Essex, said a more considered approach was needed to the challenge of rising pupil numbers, beyond “just slapping on extra classrooms”.

According to forecasts, the school system will have to absorb an additional 900,000 pupils by 2020, which is forcing primaries and secondaries to dramatically expand their intakes.

‘Horse has bolted’ on free schools

Lord Nash, a former venture capitalist, said local authorities aligned with all political parties – even those that had previously been “anti-free school” – had “seen the light” on the benefits of using free schools to meet the need for more places and were working closely with the Department for Education.

“They have seen that these schools are actually successful – they can’t deny that,” he said. “I think the horse has pretty much bolted on this.”

But Russell Hobby, general secretary of heads’ union the NAHT, said: “Relying on free schools makes for a fragmented approach to local place planning, and councils can’t make them expand.”

On the subject of multiple storeys, Mr Hobby said: “There are limitations. In particular, you have to have sufficient outdoor space, which is very important for primary pupils.”

Councillor Roy Perry, chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, said: “I think the minister should be very concerned about the situation.

“My own council, Hampshire, is looking at having to borrow huge sums – hundreds of millions of pounds – to provide enough school places.”

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