Friday, 3 May 2013

London’s school places crisis (and how academies and free schools are not helping)

Last week saw the publication of a very interesting and hard-hitting report from London Councils, the body that lobbies central government and the Mayor of London on behalf of the capital’s Local Authorities.

The message of ‘Do the Maths’, which made it to the front page of the Evening Standard, was stark enough. London is facing a shortfall of 118,000 primary and secondary school places up until 2016/7. It accounts for 42% of the total shortfall in England, yet it is only receiving 36% of the capital allocation it needs for 2013 and 2014.

The report says, ‘schools need to be expanded and new ones built’. Yet London’s funding settlement for schools is only for one year, making effective planning of provision very difficult, especially as it takes at least 18 months to build a new school.

The report makes an impassioned plea for an improved capital funding formula that fully recognises London’s unique pressure and for longer funding cycles to enable proper investment and planning.

The document needs to be seen for what it is, a lobbying document designed to put pressure on central government to relax the funding environment. But the problems are real enough.

It might be thought that this was meat and drink to the advocates of new Free Schools in Waltham Forest, for example. But things aren’t quite so straightforward.

In an interesting passage near the end of the document, the report notes that ‘there are currently 229 secondary academies within London – this represents over half of all secondary schools in the capital. This affects where local authorities can expand capacity as academies are under no obligation to expand as they are outside local authority control. In the case of free schools [effectively the same as academies in this case – outside local authority control, ed.] the challenge will be to ensure that their location best supports areas where there is a particular pressure on places’ (p. 9)

There are two interesting things here:

1. Academies are making things worse. Operating outside of local authority control, they can act independently in what they see as their own interest, regardless of the wider social need. There’s nothing the Local Authorities can do about this. And as noted above, building more free schools will simply aggravate this.

2. The local authorities identify it as a challenge to ensure that free schools are built in the right places. That decision is not made by the local authority but by the sponsors and the Department of Education.

And the evidence suggests that free schools are not being built in the right places. Indeed the Local Schools Network has revealed many instances of free schools being built in places where there are surplus places. In addition to which these schools are getting favourable treatment in terms of capital funding, while the capital’s established community schools are starved.

In the same week that the London Councils report was published, the Public Accounts Committee published its own report into the Department of Education’s spending on the academies programme and it was scathing.

The PAC found that a £1 billion overspend on the academies programme was caused by the ‘excessively complex and inefficient academy funding system’. £400 million had been taken out of funds earmarked for intervention in underperforming schools and spent instead on funding academy conversion, even where the schools in question were already Good or Outstanding (Thomas Gamuel, anyone?). The committee was also deeply concerned about the lack of accountability of academies. Even Tory MP Richard Bacon said that the lack of transparency in spending, especially in chains like Oasis, was ‘mind-blowing’.

So, to summarise. We have a genuine shortage of places that could be tackled by an expansion of existing local authority schools and the building of new schools. This would be most efficiently done by building local authority schools which could be expanded or contracted according to need and which could be allocated to the areas where need is greatest (as argued on this site, here).

Instead, government policy means that money will be wasted on converting schools to academies and building free schools wherever people shout the loudest, increasing the number of schools competing against one another and entirely outside of local authority control.

It looks as though the government is more intent on smashing up the democratically accountable comprehensive system than tackling the very real issues of provision in London and our children are to pay the price.

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