Three years ago, London Councils predicted that at the start of this term, there would be a shortage of 118,000 places in schools.
The crisis didn’t happen when children returned this month – but only because of a new era of “broom cupboard” education, according to one expert.
London Councils, which represents the capital’s local authorities, now predicts that the shortfall will be 110,364 over the next five years – with east London facing the greatest shocks.
Population rises in the east are coming at a time of immense pressure on the system with a reduction in money from a new funding formula, and the growth in free schools, which do not have to take in strategic need as a criteria.
Soon the shortage of secondary places will overtake the shortage of primary places. This is significant because new secondary places cost £6,000 more to create. The overall bill to resolve the crisis is estimated at £1.8billion.
Primary shortfalls by borough (%) 2016
Despite the threat of a crisis, the London Assembly education panel, investigating the problem, heard that the Department for Education was reporting a 0.7% excess in places in London this autumn.
Panel member Tony Arbour, a Conservative, said: “We are fond of portraying London as a place where there’s absolutely no spare capacity at all except on analysis there is actually capacity.”
Cllr Richard Watts, representing London Councils said: “You can always educate children in a broom cupboard.”
He added: “Local authorities have become very good at scratching around trying to find places, bulging classes, Portakabins, so places get found – but it is increasingly unsatisfactory accommodation on increasingly stretched school budgets and it isn’t sustainable.”
Cllr Watts said the 0.7% figure was tight – good practice recommended 5% – and signalled that parental choice was limited and there was no scope to absorb shocks.
He pointed out one of the key dilemmas for education planners. The problem is “not so much the identification of school places, the real problem is that local authorities have the legal responsibility to provide school places with all the necessary legal powers to do that”.
He said: “The majority of secondary schools are academies in many London boroughs but the local authority has no power to force an academy to expand against its will.
“Similarly we have no powers over allocation of places at free schools which are the only route that new schools can be created so we’re put in this incredibly invidious position where we have responsibilities but no power.”
He raised the case of one new £55million school in Islington which councillors only discovered through a search in the Land Registry – there was no liaison at all with the local education authority.
“There is an astonishing mismatch that is not in the best interest of taxpayers,” said Cllr Watts. “It is incredibly unhelpful that there isn’t the involvement of London government, in the broadest sense, in free school decisions.”
Secondary shortfalls by borough (%) 2016
Joanne McCartney , the new deputy mayor for education and childcare, said, since 2010, 17 free schools had opened in areas where pupil numbers were expected to fall “which seems absolutely bonkers policy”.
She said she would be looking to beef up strategic planning to bring some order to the crisis while Cllr Watts argued that DfE powers should be devolved to City Hall.
Lucy Heller, chief executive of Ark Academy, said: “Pupil place planning is an art and not a science and you’re talking about plans five years’ hence so it’s difficult to get right and in some cases the only places you have to build are the only sites that could be found – it’s never going to be perfect.”
But she agreed: “It is counterproductive to create schools where there isn’t a need.”
Where will the teachers live?
Experts from both the free school and state school sectors said the recruitment and retention of teachers was one of the biggest challenges and the single greatest advance would be the growth of key worker housing.
Ark Academy chief executive Lucy Heller said: “We find we’re getting young teachers who are prepared to come and live like sardines in flat shares but as soon as people start families they, not unreasonably, want to have their own homes. That’s the difficult bit.”