Soaring birth rate puts pressure on primary school places

8 Jun 09
English towns and cities face a far larger than predicted demand for school classes, with London expecting a shortfall of 18,000 places. So should government or education authorities bear the costs

24th April 2009

By David Williams

English towns and cities face a far larger than predicted demand for school classes, with London expecting a shortfall of 18,000 places. So should government or education authorities bear the costs?

A single, mobile classroom newly installed in a suburban school playground makes for an innocuous symbol of impending crisis.

The Woodside School in Waltham Forest, east London, was one of 14 in the borough to take on an extra reception class last September. It was supposed to be a one-off measure to deal temporarily with rapidly swelling numbers of young children.

But the council is now leaning on the school’s governors to expand permanently, forecasting a 20% increase in the number of reception class places the borough will have to provide by 2012.

The trend is widespread. A report published on April 20 by London Councils, Do the maths, claims that 18,300 children in the capital could be without a reception class by 2014, much more than was recently estimated.

There are already 2,250 too few places in London’s primary schools, a deficit forecast to increase to 5,000 by 2011, with research suggesting a further 15,000 will have to be crammed into temporary classrooms.

Three-quarters of London boroughs are already under pressure – one unnamed authority will have to conjure up 750 new places by 2012. But the problem will not end with reception classes – these pupils are not going to vanish into thin air when they turn six. The problem is compounded with each new intake that exceeds current capacity.

London Councils says the situation has been caused by a combination of factors. Some parents have taken their children out of private schools, while others have chosen not to sell up and move to the country because their homes have plummeted in value.

There are signs that the phenomenon is not confined to the capital. A 16.8% increase in the birth rate for England and Wales over the past five years is in the same order as London’s figure of 20.5%.

Les Lawrence, Birmingham City Council’s Cabinet member for education, says his city might represent a microcosm of the national picture. Half of Birmingham is suffering from a shortage in school places after a startling rise in the birth rate. Without a serious building programme, those areas will have to rely on an increase in mobile classrooms and on classes with more than 30 pupils.

The boom is partly mitigated in the suburbs, where an ageing population is leaving schools with a surplus of places. The difficulty for Lawrence is that he can’t bus five-year-olds out of the city to be educated – new places must be provided in the communities that need them.

In addition, ‘trying to find new sites within a large part of the city is nigh-on impossible’, says Lawrence. ‘Even in the current recession it’s still a very expensive proposition.’

Already one new school is planned, and Birmingham has committed more cash to enlarge another five, providing 800 additional places. And yet current predictions for the city still indicate a net shortfall of 1,000 reception class places in five to seven years’ time. The real deficit will be bigger, because all the empty places on the edge of the city won’t be filled by children from the city centre.

Lawrence says the council is now trying to strike a very fine balance between creating new places in the inner city, maintaining schools with a surplus of places on the outskirts, and trying to encourage parents on the edge of the shortage area to send their children to less in-demand schools just outside their neighbourhood.

As one of England’s largest authorities, with a substantial annual turnover, Birmingham has a bigger capital budget than most, so should be better equipped to meet the challenges it faces. It might also be able to divert some of its prudential borrowing allowance from major regeneration projects to school building.

Even so, Lawrence is less than optimistic. ‘We’re going to be sailing very close to the wind,’ he says. ‘It’s going to require very careful handling and I couldn’t give you a categoric assurance that we will be able to provide the space for every single reception class child who needs one.’ But this is every local education authority’s minimum statutory duty.

In less well-resourced areas, the situation is already becoming desperate. Slough Borough Council has experienced a 20% rise in births in the past two years. Its annual budget of £100m for all services is dwarfed by the £231m it needs to spend on schools to meet projected demand by 2012.

But conspicuously absent is an explanation of why the birth rate suddenly exploded five years ago, after a long period of gradual decline.

Clair Pyper, Slough’s head of education, says: ‘The need for education in Slough is a direct result of the government’s European Union migration and external migration policies. We have a duty to incorporate new citizens in our town and to educate the children of those new citizens.’

But she stresses: ‘It’s a really sensitive issue, and I’m not making a judgement on it,’ adding that councils will be unable to fulfil that duty without appropriate funding. Yet, despite lobbying the Department for Children, Schools and Families for more money, Slough has been all but ignored by ministers and officials.

It is not only the government that is failing to confront the issue. Last month Liberal Democrat MP Ed Davey organised a Westminster Hall debate in response to ballooning demand in his southwest London constituency. But Conservative shadow schools minister Nick Gibb retorted that the responsibility should be laid at the door of the town hall.

‘The problem in Kingston and Surbiton seems to be one of poor forecasting,’ he said. ‘Plans were not put in place to raise capacity when the demographics were relatively clear that new capacity was needed.’

But how likely is it that councils all over England, including three-quarters of London boroughs, all made the same mistake at the same time?

Pyper claims the population explosion was almost impossible to forecast in time for the 2008–2011 Spending Review period, because the most

up-to-date figures were for 2006/07, which showed a modest rise in population, but not the 20% increase seen in the two years since.

Pyper’s experience with the DCSF is shared by the Woodside School. Chair of governors Pat Stannard wrote to the department pleading for Waltham Forest’s education budget to be recalculated, carefully setting out the borough’s predicament.

The department responded by saying it was sorry to hear about the difficulties the school was having with its budget – and referred the governors to the local authority.

Whitehall has so far failed to publicly acknowledge that the method for funding primary schools might be unable to cope with rapid adjustments in local populations. London Councils says the mechanism has been ‘overwhelmed’ by the spike in demand.

Do the maths says £740m needs to be invested in expanding primary schools and building new ones. With an estimated £260m needed now, London Councils is calling on the DCSF to give councils an emergency capital grant to enable them to keep up with demand. It also recommends that the government offers interest-free loans, as the slump in land and property values means that councils are now less able to generate capital by selling these assets.

But unless the DCSF acknowledges the problem, there are few options for councils. The department has merely promised to read London Councils’ report ‘with interest’.

With time running out, many authorities believe that continuing inaction from government could allow a crisis to become a catastrophe.

Did you enjoy this article?