England school places shortage 'made worse by academies'

Government urged to restore powers to councils to open new schools to cope with demand

Councils are warning that a looming shortage in the number of school places across England is being made worse by academies, as last decade’s baby boom enters secondary schools over the next five years.

The Local Government Association (LGA) is calling for the government to restore powers to councils enabling them to open new maintained schools if residents support them, and for new powers for councils to require academies to expand to meet local demand.

Anntoinette Bramble, the chair of the LGA’s children and young people board, said that without such changes children were at risk of not having a secondary school place.

“Our secondary school places crisis is now just one year away and this will be the reality for thousands of families without action,” Bramble said.

Last year, about 20% of families in England failed to gain a place at their first preference school, with the rate rising above 40% in several London boroughs including Lambeth and Lewisham. One in eight families in London failed to gain a place at any of their choices.

Councils say their position is made impossible by conflicting rules, which place a legal duty on them to ensure adequate school places for local children but allow only autonomous academies and free schools to be opened to provide more places, other than in rare circumstances.

With most state secondary schools in England now academies, the problem is made worse because local authorities cannot direct them to expand their intake or offer more places to meet forecast high demand, as they can with maintained schools.

“Councils need to be allowed to open new maintained schools and direct academies to expand. It makes no sense for councils to be given the responsibility to plan for school places but then not be allowed to open schools themselves,” Bramble said.

“The government needs to work closely with councils to meet the challenges currently facing the education system.”

A spokesperson for the Department for Education (DfE) said: “We are determined to create more choice for parents when it comes to their children’s education and we have created around 920,000 school places since 2010, and are on track to see that number rise to a million by 2020.

“Standards have also risen, with 85% of schools now rated good or outstanding by Ofsted, compared with 68% in 2010.”

As parents and families prepare to apply for school places in 2020 when applications open later this year, the LGA says the DfE’s statistics suggest 15 areas have a shortage of classrooms, with the number of councils affected then rapidly increasing.

By 2022, about a third of councils are expected to have a shortage of places for nearly 60,000 pupils. That figure rises to nearly half of all local authorities in England by the school year starting in September 2024, when more than 120,000 young people are “at risk of no place” if no new schools are built.

In recent years, councils have created an estimated 600,000 places in primary schools to cope with the mini baby boom of the previous decade. But as children in that group move on to secondary school, councils say they have far less ability to provide more places.

Last year, councils say, they created 96,000 places through their existing primary and secondary schools and, in a small number of cases, by commissioning places in academies. But only 37,000 of the new places were in secondary schools.

The LGA’s plea comes as the government is reviving plans to rapidly expand the proportion of academies and free schools in England.

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Richard Adams Education editor

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