Challenges ahead as 420,000 school places still needed

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:

The government has made notable progress in meeting the need for new school places, but still has a long way to go and significant challenges ahead. Pete Henshaw reports

A total of 599,000 new school places were created between 2010 and 2015 at a cost of £7.5 billion – but another 420,000 places will be needed by 2021 and issues remain with over and under capacity in certain areas.

The figures have been published by the National Audit Office (NAO) in a report analysing capital funding and school places in England.

In England, there are approximately 21,200 state-funded schools, which educate 7.9 million pupils aged between four and 19.

The report – Capital Funding for Schools – found signs of pressure on school places in some areas, but spare capacity elsewhere. In 2016, 10 per cent of primary places and 16 per cent of secondary places were unfilled.

But the report warns that this spare capacity does not mean that all areas have enough places, with particular pressure in London and the South East.

The report states that in 2015, 13 per cent of primary planning areas and 12 per cent of secondary planning areas had spare capacity of less than two per cent – the accepted level to allow operational flexibility.

The government is racing to create enough school places in light of the growing number of school-aged pupils. The number of five to 10-year-old pupils in primary schools increased by 446,000 (13 per cent) between 2010 and 2016.

This rise is reflected in the fact that the proportion of infants in classes of more than 30 pupils has stabilised at six per cent – three times the percentage in 2008.

The problem is soon to take a new twist as the increase in pupil numbers hits secondary schools, where places are more complex and costly to provide.

The government estimates that it will need to create 420,000 additional places between 2016 and 2021 – 231,000 in primary schools and 189,000 in secondary schools.

However, the NAO warns that up until now, local authorities will have likely expanded capacity in primary schools where it was straightforward to do so. It adds: “Future projects are likely to be more complex.”

The report continues: “The need for extra places is highest in London and the South East. Meeting this need will be difficult because primary schools have often already been expanded where this was straightforward, and because it is more complicated to increase capacity in secondary schools as they require specialised facilities, such as science laboratories.”

The report also warns that the government’s free schools programme, while helping to meet the need for school places, is creating over-capacity in some areas.

By September 2016, 429 free schools had been opened and the DfE is planning to have 883 open by September 2020.

The DfE has opened 136 primary schools and 60 secondary schools in local authorities that need to increase school capacity by more than 20 per cent between 2009/10 and 2019/20. However, it has opened 46 secondary free schools (a fifth of the total) in local authorities where overall no new capacity is needed between 2009/10 and 2019/20.

The DfE estimates that 57,500 of the 113,500 new places in mainstream free schools opening between 2015 and 2021 will create spare capacity and not contribute to meeting local demographic need for places.

The report also warns that the cost of some free school projects is incredibly high. The DfE often provides sites for free schools, but a lack of land sometimes requires the DfE to “enter into complex commercial agreements”, paying large sums to secure sites.

The report states: “While the average cost of the 175 sites that the Department has bought is
£4.9 million, 24 sites have cost more than £10 million each (including four that have cost more than £30 million).”

The DfE estimates that it will need to spend a further £2.5 billion on buying land from 2016 to 2022, making it one of the largest land purchasers in the country, the report adds.

The NAO also emphasises the inherent conflict in that local authorities are responsible in law for ensuring enough school places, but do not control the number of places available in academies or free schools in their areas.

The school estate

The NAO report also raises concerns about the condition of the school estate, warning that with 60 per cent of England’s schools having been built before 1976, it would now require £6.7 billion to return all school buildings to “satisfactory or better condition”.

The report adds: “Common defects include problems with electrics and external walls, windows and doors.

“The Department’s property data survey estimated that in total it would cost £6.7 billion to return all schools to satisfactory or better condition and a further £7.1 billion to bring parts of school buildings from satisfactory to good condition.”

The report adds that the DfE “does not currently know with certainty how the condition of the estate is changing over time”. However, the DfE does estimate that the cost of dealing with major defects in the estate will double between 2015/16 and 2020/21. The report continues: “This position, combined with weak accountability for the condition of the school estate and weak incentives for schools to maintain their buildings, creates a significant risk that defects will go unrepaired and will cost more to address in the future.”

The DfE’s Priority School Building Programme (PSBP) is working to replace 214 schools entirely during its £2.3 billion phase 1 before then replacing or refurbishing blocks in 277 schools during the £2 billion phase 2.

The report finds that so far 178 PSBP projects have been delivered at two-thirds of the cost-per-square-metre of the previous Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme.

However, PSBP is going to cost £286 million more than expected and the NAO says that the DfE is yet to formally assess the quality of the buildings it has provided.


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