Editorial - We are facing a crisis - so let's think the unthinkable
"He's just called them immoral," one Tory adviser muttered with exaggerated incredulity. "How can he say that about groups of decent people trying to set up schools? How?"
Such was the response in ministerial circles to the best sound bite in general secretary Brian Lightman's speech at the Association of School and College Leaders' conference last weekend: faux astonishment that the leader of England's secondary heads could use such emotive language about a supposedly innocent policy.
Actually, what Mr Lightman said was immoral is setting up free schools in areas where high-performing schools are already providing enough places to match demand - a quite different proposition from damning them all.
It is possible that Mr Lightman was, in fact, too soft on the government's obsession with free schools. He might, for example, have considered attacking the madness of ministers' claims that these new schools will significantly contribute to the solution to the looming explosion in pupil numbers.
The projections are, after all, astonishing. England will need around 450,000 extra places by 2015 if the schools system is to keep pace with wider society's huge demographic shifts (see cover story, pages 26-30). That's something close to 1,000 new primaries in three years.
To be fair, the government has announced increased capital funding for new buildings. But most experts believe it is far from sufficient. Besides, it's probably too late anyway. New schools do not just magically appear - they need planning permission and construction contracts. And that's before you've got John Smith Builders in to complete the job in time for the start of term.
Ministers should recognise that it would take even longer to achieve the proliferation of free schools needed to hoover up the extra children requiring an education. Barking and Dagenham, the local authority likely to come under the worst pressure, doesn't even have any primary proposals advanced enough to be taken seriously.
As our cover story this week suggests, the most prevalent strategy being adopted is pragmatism, best summarised as: "Put a temporary classroom in the playground."
No doubt teachers - a resilient lot - will make the best of this situation while probably maintaining results. As such, the powers that be will have got away with a fundamental dereliction of duty.
But this would represent a missed opportunity. By far the cheapest way of dealing with the pupil places crisis is also the most radical, although it would involve taking on one of the hardiest of British political perennials - the obsession with class size.
Year after year, international research shows that squeezing a couple of extra pupils into most classes makes little or no difference to results, provided that the teacher is of a high calibre. Just ask the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, to name but one.
But while this solution would prove far cheaper in terms of cold cash, there isn't a politician in Britain ready to risk the political capital invested in maintaining low class sizes. And that is why we find ourselves in this situation.
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