Earlier this year I wrote about the delivery of my latest “baby”: my daughter Grace. Now that we are reaching the end of the 12-month defects period (her first birthday) our minds are now firmly focused on the thorny issue of primary school places in London.
We are part of the recent baby boom in London, and trying to secure a nursery place has been a challenge, but we have just managed to clear that first hurdle. So why are we concerned about a primary school place already?
This year, of 100,000 pupils in London applying for primary places, 6,220 youngsters did not get one of their choices. Of these, 4,700 have been offered an alternative place, while around 1,500 (in April) had no school place at all — which is the worrying (if you are a recent parent) and shocking reality of underinvestment in our education system.
The DFE issued a report last year that warned that there will be a significant shortage in school places in London. Their prediction is that there will be over 100,000 extra pupils in London schools in 2014/15 compared to 2010/11 and London Councils’ analysis revealed a predicted shortage of permanent school places across London of around 70,000 by 2014.
The cost of meeting this pressure is estimated to be around £1.7 billion. These figures are conservative and understate the number of places required. They assume pupils will travel anywhere within a borough and do not make any allowance for pupil growth that is higher than the forecast. They also give London boroughs little scope to respond to changes in parental demand by increasing provision in more popular schools.
In July this year Michael Gove confirmed English councils will receive a further £500 million this year to fund additional school places. Gove said the money would go to the areas with the greatest demographic pressure and would be aimed particularly at primary schools, where a shortage of places is most acute. Further details were to be provided over the summer and finalised in the autumn. But we are still waiting to hear more…
His statement, delivered to MPs before the summer break, also announced the start of a consultation on school funding. Gove said this outlined “fair and comprehensive” reform of the way schools’ revenue funding is determined.
“At present, similar schools in different areas can receive very different amounts of funding for their pupils. This is not fair,” the education secretary is quoted as saying. “That is why I’m proposing a new fairer, national funding formula, with appropriate room for local discretion, in order to have a simpler, fairer and transparent system.”
On the surface this all sounds well and good but what about the reality?
So, while the government appears to have four years to sort out this shortage, prior to meeting our needs, we know from other parents that they too are already seeking alternatives because no one believes they will resolve the crisis.
One alternative is the “free” Church of England school nearby, which has a fantastic reputation and has attracted a lot of attention from young parents. The local church has a vibrant and young congregation, most of whom have babies or young children, so it’s no coincidence that they are seeking a primary school place. We know that members of the congregation have either converted from Catholicism or stayed silent on the matter to ensure their child gets the best possible education!
As a profession we are known for our social conscience, therefore we need to have a voice on this matter and stand up for everyone’s right to a good, free education system that meets the changing demands of our population.
If we turn a blind eye then the profession will have an even greater problem recruiting the right people in the future or risk losing future talent to other countries than can provide a suitable free education system. So how can the profession help?
Architects have provided excellent teaching environments under the BSF programme but, given the time pressure to provide more school places, it seems unlikely that new buildings alone will solve the crisis.
Is it to the refurbishment of unoccupied/disused buildings or the development of pop-up schools that we need to look? Toby Young’s free school initiative has been well documented and he believes that the reuse of existing, often historic, buildings is vital to his programme.
However, we could incentivise developers to convert unoccupied central London office buildings in the short term to primary schools for a period of say 5-10 years. Imagine the headline: “Top London developer completes pop-up school for local authority”.
An alternative is to encourage the independent school sector, which has a wealth of experience, knowledge and existing facilities, to become more involved in providing state sector schooling as part of their charitable status.
So, when Toby Young states “I think the solution is to make it easier for voluntary groups to form partnerships with experienced educational providers, including for-profit companies, and there’s some evidence that’s beginning to happen”, is he correct in his assessment?