THE BLOG

The School Place System Is Broken

19/01/2016 13:23 GMT | Updated 19/01/2017 10:12 GMT

For most parents of children approaching primary-age, the past few months will have been a whirlwind. They will have attended open day after open day, read Ofsted reports and studied league tables, met teachers and chatted to other parents, all keen to make the right decisions that they know will leave a long-lasting impression on their child's life.

The run up to a child's first day of school should be exciting and encouraging for parents, as they plan ahead and wonder what life might have in store for their family. Yet for far too many this experience has become a negative one, riddled with anxiety and ultimately, disillusionment in a system that can only be described as broken.

Last year, in a heartbreaking blog a mother in Richmond described her experience of the primary school application process. She explained how she had meticulously planned ahead, visiting potential schools, using all six preferences on the application form as advised, and ensuring they were all within a mile of where her family live. She did everything right. Then on national offer day in April she received an email from the council telling her that it was not possible to offer her child a school place. Not even a place at her fifth or sixth choice, but quite simply no place at any school.

Her family was one in over 100 in Richmond that found themselves in that position last year. For all those parents, all the joy in planning for their child's next steps in education will have been soured. Rather than thinking about uniform shopping and what teachers their child may have in September, their energy over the next few months would have been consumed with trying to find a suitable solution with the local council that ideally wouldn't involve their child having a ridiculous and impractical commute to school. No parent should ever have to go through that.

The experiences of these parents are far from the exception. People will wonder how Britain's schools system reached this point. The reality is that this Government believed that they could leave planning for school places to the market. They thought groups of parents or charities or others would come to the rescue via their Free Schools programme and resolve to meet the growing demand for more school places. As we have found out, it requires far more planning than this. This problem is now heading fast towards the secondary sector, where it will be even harder for market forces to meet demand, due to issues of limited space and land in our cities.

The Government's obsession with Free Schools, which can be opened in areas where there are already enough school places, has made it harder and harder to ensure there are sufficient good school places everywhere. Ministers have removed local input on places and tied the hands of councils when it comes to opening and expanding schools - just to ensure that the Free Schools programme gets priority. Local authorities can now only require community schools to expand, and not academies and Free Schools - despite the fact that the majority of secondary schools are now academies. We're seeing the consequences of this already, with over half of the new secondary places created over the last five years in failing schools. When councils have run out of options to expand good and outstanding schools, they have had little choice but to turn to the ones that are inadequate or require improvement.

The impact of the Government's failure to properly tackle the pressure on places is stark. Class sizes rising, with over half a million children now in very large classes in primary school, including of over 40 and 50. Playgrounds, music rooms and libraries in schools converted to provide more classroom space. Children in some areas being forced to travel further and further to their school, even by taxi, because the site is located miles away from where they live. All this cost, just to open 300-odd Free Schools, which are neither driving up standards, nor performing any better than any other type of school.

I am sure that like they always try to do, the Tories will attempt to blame Labour for their own failures. But the children whose parents are applying for school places this year were born under a Conservative government and it was the responsibility of Conservative Ministers over the last parliament to ensure there were enough school places for parents everywhere. It's time for them to grow up and acknowledge that the system they have created is not delivering for families up and down the country and change tack.

When we have the situation that some families applying last week will go straight onto a waiting list with no offer of any school place, and soaring numbers of children will be crammed into ever-expanding classes, we can say candidly that the Government's current approach is not working. It is now time for the Tories to abandon their unjustified fixation with one type of school, and once and for all, put the urgent need for sufficient good school places in every local area first.

Lucy Powell is the shadow education secretary and Labour MP for Manchester Central