Leading Tories are demanding change to government education policy and an easing of cuts, amid predictions that councils in Conservative-run heartlands will soon be unable to provide school places for all the children in their areas.
The growing concerns of Tory MPs and council leaders are being relayed to ministers by the Conservative-led Local Government Association, which is calling on the government to hand back powers to councils so that they can expand schools or open new ones. The alternative, it says, will be a crisis of provision across the country.
Such a move would require a major U-turn in government policy. In the last parliament Michael Gove, while education secretary, imposed restrictions on councils’ ability to force academies to expand, arguing that headteachers should be free to run their schools as they wished.
He also said that where new schools were needed, councils should seek sponsors for “free schools” – which are funded by central government but not run by the local education authority.
Last week, however, Cheryl Gillan, the MP for Chesham and Amersham, whose constituency is experiencing rapid housing growth, was one of several Tories to voice concerns in parliament. She said Buckinghamshire county council had warned that it could not “provide the key infrastructure that is required for new schools and additional places”.
She insisted that her main message was about the need for more funding, but made it clear that more flexibility was needed to ensure places could be created where they were needed. “I thought our policy was supposed to be all about responding to demand,” she said.
Other Tory MPs who voiced concerns about looming shortages of places in their areas were Steve Baker (Wycombe) and Kevin Hollinrake (Thirsk and Malton). Nick Gibb, the schools minister, insisted that enough money was being provided to councils to ensure sufficient school places.
The shadow education secretary, Lucy Powell, said: “With such big rises in demand, the provision of new places needs proper planning and co-ordination. The government’s fixation with free schools as the only solution is stopping extra places being provided where they are needed. They should free up local authorities to open and expand good and outstanding schools as required. Otherwise we will continue to see many more children without any school place, and many, many more crammed into over-large class sizes and being put in unsuitable accommodation.”
One of the main criticisms of Gove’s “free school” programme has been that many of the more than 400 such schools established so far are not in areas of acute need, but where people wish to set up a new school.
The Local Government Association says that in areas of need, councils will often struggle to find people to sponsor “free schools” and believes that local councils are “uniquely situated” to manage demand.
Roy Perry, the Tory leader of Hampshire county council and chair of the LGA’s children and young people board, said councils had created 300,000 extra primary school places by expanding class sizes, converting non-classroom space and diverting money from vital school repair programmes, but now needed to be able to expand schools or establish new ones to meet demand.
“If they [schools] are not willing to expand, then powers to create new schools should be returned to local authorities themselves if they are unable to secure high-quality free school sponsors in their communities,” Perry said.
In its 2015 election manifesto, the Conservative party promised 500 new free schools by 2020, which they said would create 270,000 new school places. But Labour argues that there is no guarantee that they will be built in places where demand is highest.
To cater for 615,000 additional pupils expected by 2020, each of the 500 free schools would have to have an average of 1,230 pupils – when the median primary school size is between 200 and 300 pupils, whereas the median secondary school is between 900 and 1,000 pupils.
There are currently 304 free schools, with an additional 116 in the pipeline. According to the New Schools Network, a government-funded body, these 420 free schools will provide more than 235,000 places if they are full. Many of these schools have been significantly undersubscribed.
A department for education spokesman said: “Despite rising pupil numbers, 95 per cent of parents received an offer at one of their top three preferred schools last year and any suggestion to the contrary is nonsense.
“Instead of scaremongering, the LGA need to ensure they use the funds provided by Government to secure enough places. Councils are responsible for ensuring there are sufficient school places in their area, and we expect them to plan effectively and make good investment decisions.
“Where local authorities identify the need for a new school they are required by law to invite proposals for a new free school and then forward these to the Department to decide on the options. We would encourage councils to work with RSCs, using their combined local knowledge, to identify top sponsors for new schools in their area, and are confident there is sufficient quantity of quality sponsors to meet demand. We encourage all good academies to grow, to help give every child the world-class education they deserve.”
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