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Gove's free schools are failing to solve the school places crisis

Almost half of English schools districts will soon have too few places for pupils. But free schools continue to open in areas with a surplus.

Boris Johnson with Toby Young and pupils at the opening of the West London Free School. Photograph: Getty Images.

For months education figures have been warning that England will soon face a chronic shortage of primary school places, a problem exacerbated by Michael Gove's decision to open free schools in areas where there is already a surplus.

The latest to sound the alarm is the Local Government Association (LGA). Its chairman David Simmonds warns that almost half of English schools districts will have more primary pupils than places within two years and that "the process of opening up much-needed schools is being impaired by a one-size-fits-all approach and in some cases by the presumption in favour of free schools and academies." 

Of the 145 free schools approved in Waves 2 and 3 of the programme, 20 per cent are located in areas where there is at least a 10 per cent surplus of places. The LGA has responded by echoing Labour's call for the schools to only open in areas with a shortage. As Simmonds said, "Local councils have a legal duty to ensure there is a school place for every child in their area but they are being hampered by uncertainty and unnecessary restrictions". Shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg said: "In choosing to prioritise school capital funding in areas with surplus places through his free schools programme, David Cameron is showing he is out of touch with the needs of ordinary people by failing to meet basic need for school places."

Michael Gove's defence is that the schools offer parents choice in areas where there may no be shortage of places but there is a lack of good schools. As he said in response to the LGA: "We have more than doubled funding for new school places and we are also setting up great new free schools, which are giving parents a choice of high quality school places in areas Labour neglected".

The Education Secretary can point to the fact that 75 per cent of the 24 free schools inspected by Ofsted (a sample too small to draw any firm conclusions) were rated as good or oustanding, significantly higher than the average figure of 64 per cent. But one concern remains that free schools are not opening in those areas in the greatest need, with more located in authorities whose schools are in the top ten per cent than those whose schools are in the bottom ten per cent. As Southwark school governor Annie Powell recently noted at Left Foot Forward, "no primary free schools have been approved for Medway, Hull, Suffolk, Portsmouth or Peterborough, the bottom five performing authorities on the main measure of performance (percentage obtaining level 4 or above in both English and maths). Contrast this with the two primary free schools in Richmond upon Thames and the three going to Wandsworth."

But standards aside, Gove is still unable to explain how free schools will deliver the 240,00 new primary school places needed by 2014-15. An additional 93 schools will open this month, taking the total to 174 but 415 new openings are needed every year to keep pace with the rise in pupil numbers.

Until he's able to get close to meeting that target, Gove's priority should be responding to what it is being accurately described as a school places crisis. And, whatever their other merits, it's already clear that free schools are not the best means of doing so.

Update: The Department for Education has been in touch to point out that it is spending £5bn between now and 2015 on creating new school places, stating that this is a "massive increase" compared to what Labour spent. Here's the full response from a DfE spokesperson:

We are spending £5bn by 2015 on creating new school places — more than double the amount spent by the previous government in the same timeframe. We worked closely with councils on the reforms to school place funding so it is now more accurate than ever before - targeting money exactly where places are needed.

Seventy per cent of all open free schools are in areas of basic need, while all the open and planned free schools will deliver 130,000 new places. They will continue to open where there is demand from parents for good schools and help manage the pressure caused by rising birth rates on the school system.