Shortfall of school places revealed

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Around 240,000 new primary school places are needed by 2014/15 to meet increased demand, according to new research by the National Audit Office.


The Capital Funding for New School Places report warns that despite the Department for Education (DfE) increasing the funding it provides to local authorities and a net increase of almost 81,500 primary school places in the last two years, there are indications of real strain on school places.

It estimates that 240,000 new primary school places will be required by 2014/15. Of these 37 per cent are in London.

It attributes the rise in the number of children born in England between 2001 and 2011, which was the largest ten year increase since the 1950s, to increased demand for primary school places and says it expects the number of births to continue to rise beyond 2014/15.

The National Audit Office (NAO) says that while the Department for Education considers that all local authorities are meeting their statutory duty to provide sufficient school places, there are indications of pressures on the school system.

In May 2012 just over 20 per cent of schools were full or over capacity. The number of infant classes with more than 31 children has also doubled since 2007.

The report goes on to claim that the DfE’s 2010 assessment of necessary funding, in which it estimated it would cost £5 billion to fund 324,000 new places, was based on incomplete information.

It also says that although the Department has improved the information it uses to make decisions on what funds it allocates to school places, and that it plans to collect further data about places created, it currently lacks sufficient information about how local authorities are using the funding they have already been given.

Since the Spending Review, the DfE has earmarked £4.3 billion for local authorities towards the cost of providing places. An additional £982 million for schools capital was announced last December, some of which the Department intends to fund further places by 2014/15 and some in 2015/16.

The National Audit Office says that DfE is now creating new estimates of costs, but is unclear whether the current level of funding will be sufficient to meet the forecasted need.

Amyas More, head of the National Audit Office, said, ‘The Department for Education 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.

‘The DfE 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.’

Margaret Hodge MP, chair of the Committee of Public Accounts, said, ‘Access to a school place is a right for every child, yet in some parts of the country there is simply not enough school places. Demand is likely to rise between 2012 and 2014/15 by 240,000. However, the overall number of primary places has increased by only 81,500 between 2010 and 2012, suggesting there is a long way to go.

‘The Department for Education has left it until the eleventh hour to start getting a grip of its data. It now needs to ensure the extra funds it is providing lead to the timely provision of school places where they are most needed. It has to be clearer about its funding places and better communicate its expectations to local authorities.’

Commenting on the findings, Kevin Brennan MP, Labour’s shadow schools minister, 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 per cent, twice the Whitehall average, and wasted £1 billion through mismanaging academies.’

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.’

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