'Schools aren't overcrowded because of immigration. The problem is a toxic mixture of austerity and dogma'

27th June 2016 at 15:12
overcrowding, school places, brexit, immigration
Local authority schools are overcrowded and crumbling, but this is not because of new migrants. It's because the government has handed over the power and the money to academies and free schools, this education journalist writes

Among all the whopping great lies and half-truths peddled during the months of referendum campaigning and the days of post-referendum handwringing, the one that makes me crossest is about the pressure on services in areas with the highest level of immigrants.

We’re told that people voted to leave the EU because they were having trouble getting their children into a local school, or because doctor's appointments were almost impossible to get, and that this was because of the number of migrants who had arrived.

The first part of that sentence is true. The conclusion is not.

Overcrowded and crumbling

Since 2011 and the passing of the Education Act, the presumption has been that local authorities can’t create schools themselves to meet need, but have to somehow persuade a group of parents to do it for them. Once the parents have got together a petition calling for it, managed to set themselves up as a working group, gone through all the legal hoops and got their funding from the Department for Education, quite a bit of time has passed – especially in areas where the parents are disadvantaged in the first place. Conservatives may not like the old LA command-and-control system, but it was comparatively quick to set up a new school if it was required, and also to get it almost exactly where you needed it – another bone of contention about free schools.

Local authorities have been doing what they can by making existing schools much bigger, diverting money from repairs to create playgrounds full of temporary classrooms, with schools so big that assemblies are held in sittings and there’s little space to play. 

But they can’t do that with every school. The academies expansion project (another Conservative baby) means that, in many areas, almost all the secondary schools and a fair chunk of the primaries cannot be compelled to expand to meet the demand. And the problem is worse where there was a higher number of either outstanding schools or those requiring improvement, which have either chosen or been forced to academise.

The result? Local authority schools that are overcrowded and crumbling because the government has handed over the power and money to academies and free schools, which are allowed to be either in the wrong place or unwilling to expand to meet demand. No wonder parents are in despair.

Both hands tied

Government data suggests a shortfall of 10,000 places in England during the next four years, particularly in areas such as Bolton, Manchester, Oldham, Leeds, Birmingham, Walsall, Bexley, Sutton and Slough. Sound familiar?

Lucinda Yeadon of Leeds city council told The Guardian in April that the plan to make all schools academies was “totally illogical. We will have to provide yet more places because we are under a legal obligation to do so, but at the same time, we will be stripped of the power to do so. We will have both hands tied behind our back.”

In February, the Local Government Association asked that councils once again be given powers to open maintained schools or compel academies to expand, because they had a duty to plan for a 20 per cent increase in secondary school students by 2024.

“Councils have a statutory duty to ensure every child has a school place available to them, but find themselves in the difficult position of not being able to ensure schools, including academies, expand. Finding suitable sponsors with the capacity to take on the running of a successful new school is also proving a challenge,” said LGA chairman councillor Roy Perry.

Preferring rich kids to poor ones

While free movement has undoubtedly led to increasing demand for school places in some parts of the UK, the problem is a toxic mixture of austerity and dogma: squeezing spending on education and other services at the time of greatest need and then making it as difficult as possible to create new places quickly where they’re needed.

Until Friday, we were the fifth biggest economy on the planet – so meeting the demand for these places shouldn’t have been a problem. 

Instead, politicians – I’m looking at you, Gove and Morgan – diverted the cash and pursued policies that simply made it harder for those in areas that now say they’re “forgotten”, effectively letting the market decide. Shame the market prefers rich kids to poor ones.

And there are more educational-policy chickens coming home to roost, in the form of the speed with which the demand of SATs and GCSEs has been dramatically increased and the effect that will have on children’s engagement with education. But no doubt that, too, will be blamed on something else. 

Susan Young is a freelance education journalist. She has been writing about education for 25 years and is a former assistant editor of TES. She tweets as @SusanYoung_

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