Those who attended the recent consultation meeting convened by WSSI and Oasis Community Learning will have heard a variety of claims made about the size of the projected shortfall in secondary school places. Between 250 next year and 1000.
Yet oddly, neither appeared familiar with a document that we have seen, produced by the Local Authority, which gives projections for the trends in demand for both primary and secondary school places in the borough.
The document is publicly available and can be downloaded here:
What does this document show?
The document shows that the borough are projecting a rise in demand for secondary places in the next few years. Thus far, the fears of a shortage of school places, used by Oasis and WSSI in their literature, can be said to be real.
However, it's also important to note that the projections of secondary school demand are based on the trends in primary school age pupil demand. The projections show a very large bulge in reception age children, peaking in 2014/15 and 2015/16 and then falling year on year. Demand drops substantially and is not projected to be a permanent feature.
It is a reasonable supposition that this drop in demand will work its way through to be reflected in the figures for demand for secondary school places.
Why is this important? It is important for two related reasons.
1. These projections are not being used by WSSI and Oasis. In fact when this point was raised by those attending the recent consultation meeting, the response was, 'but we can't be sure' or 'we need a school now'. These responses lead to the second important point about the figures. Is a Free School the appropriate response to a bulge in demand that may well be temporary?
2. As the document shows, the Local Authority has a range of mechanisms open to it to deal with temporary expansions in demand. It can allow temporary expansions in the supply of places. If it is allowed the budget, it can address this issue and then ensure that any contraction in demand does not result in a surplus of school places later on.
A Free School is not accountable to the Local Authority and the council has no control over it. Free Schools cannot run even temporary deficits (as Oasis were at pains to assure us) and funding follows pupils. So they must carry on recruiting and filling their places regardless of what actual demand is. In this case, the Free School would start to take pupils away from existing Local Authority schools and damage them in the process. In this way, the Free School can be said to behave in a manner akin to a parasite within a delicate school eco-system.
The National Union of Teachers has begun to document where this is happening already and you can read their document here