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Crisis over primary school places warning
8:23am Friday 15th March 2013 in Education
Tens of thousands of extra school places will be needed by next year amid a continuing surge in demand, the spending watchdog warned today.
Despite more than 80,000 extra primary spaces being created in the last two years, there are still signs of a real strain on school places, according to a new report by the National Audit Office (NAO).
It says that the Government is pumping billions of pounds into establishing more places, but suggests that the Department for Education (DfE) still needs a better understanding of the costs, and the impact its funding is having in local areas.
The report suggests that the heightened demand for primary school places is partly down to a rising birth rate - the rise in the number of children born in England between 2001 and 2011 was the biggest 10-year increase since the 1950s.
Between 2006/07 and 2011/12, the number of four-year-olds starting reception classes rose by 16%, it says.
It warns that by September 2014, an estimated extra 256,000 primary and secondary school places will be needed to meet the demand. Of these, 240,000 are required in primary schools, with more than a third (37%) needed in London alone.
These extra places are still needed despite a net increase of almost 81,500 places which were created between 2010 and May 2012, and the DfE increasing the amount of funding it gives to local councils to provide spaces.
How many places will be required in the future is uncertain, the NAO says, but it is expected that more will be needed beyond next year.
The NAO's report says that while the DfE considers that local councils are meeting their duty to provide enough school places, the watchdog found signs of pressure on the system.
More than a fifth (20.4%) of primaries are full up, or over capacity, while the numbers of children being taught in large infant classes of 31 pupils or more has more than doubled in five years. This has gone up from 23,200 in 2007 to 47,300 in 2012, the report says.
And an NAO survey of local councils found that more than a third (34%) said that rising demand for school places has had a "significant impact" on the average time a child spends travelling to school.
The report concludes: "The Department's assessments of funding required to meet expected demand are based on incomplete information."
In total, the DfE has allocated around £4.3 billion in capital funding to local councils for new school places in England between 2010 and 2014, the report says, plus an additional £982 million announced last December. Some of this extra money will be used to fund more places by 2014/15 and some for 2015/16.
Councils' costs of providing school places can vary, it says.
The DfE initially estimated in 2010, that it would cost £5 billion to provide 324,000 places, and this would be covered by its funding and contributions from local councils.
But this figure was based on 2007, adjusted to 2010 prices, and did not include costs such as acquiring land for new schools as the DfE assumed that most new places would be created as part of existing schools, the report suggests.
The NAO said: "The department is now creating new estimates of costs, but it is unclear whether the current level of funding will be sufficient to meet the forecast need."
It added that the DfE has improved the information it uses to decide on funding allocations, but currently does not know enough about how councils are using the funding they have already received.
NAO head Amyas Morse said: "The Department has ambitious objectives to provide school places, and to enable parents to have some choice of school for their children. However, despite increases in places and funding over the last two years, it faces a real challenge, with 256,000 places still required by 2014/15. Furthermore, there are indications of strain on school places.
"The Department needs a better understanding of costs to improve value for money, as well as a better understanding of the impact its funding contribution is having on the ground."
Some of the Government's flagship free schools may open in areas with a surplus of places, the NAO said.
The report says that the free schools initiative will increase the number of places available "although it is not primarily intended by the Department to deliver places in areas of shortage".
The location of a school is one factor the DfE looks at when assessing applications, along with others such as parental demand.
Around £1.7 billion of capital funding has been allocated by the DfE to free schools for 2014/15, the NAO said.
The watchdog said its analysis of 45 free schools which opened last September suggested that these schools could offer up to 24,500 new places - around 10% of the 256,000 needed.
Around 58% of the places that could be provided by free schools are in areas with a shortage of places.
But, only 8,800 of these 24,500 are in primary schools - where there is the greatest need - and most free schools will not be at full capacity by next year, the report says.
Schools Minister David Laws said: "This report from the National Audit Office confirms that this government is dramatically increasing funding for new school places, with double the level of investment compared to the previous parliament.
"Labour reduced the number of places available even though there was a baby boom under way. We have already created 80,000 new places to deal with the shortage of places left by the last government and there will be more places to come."
Shadow schools minister Kevin Brennan said: "Michael Gove's first job as Education Secretary is to provide enough school places for children - he is failing in that duty.
"David Cameron's government needs to address the crisis in school places they have created. They have cut funding for school buildings by 60%, twice the Whitehall average and wasted £1 billion through mismanaging academies."
Councillor David Simmonds, chair of the Local Government Association's (LGA) children and young people board, said: "This report clearly shows that, despite the best efforts of councils, we are still facing unprecedented pressures in tackling the desperate shortage of new good quality school places.
"The process of opening up much needed state schools is being impaired by a lack of capital funding and in some cases by the presumption in favour of free schools and academies. With some free schools failing to secure a permanent site by their opening date, councils cannot rely on them to fulfil their duty to provide a school place for every child.
"Councils are ambitious to meet every parent's expectation that their child has a place in a good school in their local area but there is still not enough capacity to cope with the growing demand."