As recent media activity has highlighted there is a looming crisis in the provision of school places. How has this arisen? It's simple. Central government has removed the right for local authorities to plan and build new schools, whilst leaving them with the responsibility to ensure sufficient places in their locality.
Meanwhile, the secretary of state is doggedly pursuing his ideological experiment with free schools. Local authorities have no powers whatsoever in relation to these institutions. The upshot of this is that free schools are opening in areas where there are already surplus school places. Research published by the NUT found that about one in five free schools will add to "significant excess capacity". In Suffolk which has three secondary free schools, there will be a 28% surplus in secondary school places. At the same time there will be a 2% shortfall in primary places. In Bedford, a secondary free school is being funded when there will be a 25% surplus at secondary age and a 38% shortfall in primary places.
These new free schools are possibly drawing children away from existing provision, whilst in areas of shortage local authorities are having to compromise on quality to fill the gap. The number of children being taught in classes of more than 30 has doubled over the last five years.
The Commons Public Accounts Committee published a report this June warning that local authorities are having to "strain the sinews of the school estate to deliver enough places". This is clearly a recipe for chaos in place planning, which will undermine the quality of children's education and leave some without any place at all. The secretary of state can remedy the problem he has created by returning to local authorities the proper role of planning and building new schools.
Research published by the local government Information Unit, in partnership with the NUT, of Directors of Children's Services and Lead Members for Children's Services showed that local authorities are crying out for greater clarity from the Government on the management of school places.
One respondent to the survey, a Conservative councillor in a rural authority, commented:
"The allowing of free schools to set up with no regards to the strategic place planning process clearly makes a mockery of any attempts to conduct this in an empirical way. It also begs the question about how sustainable these will be in the medium and longer term once the excitement of the new clashes with the reality of delivery. It also makes a clear mockery of our statutory duties around school transport provision especially in large rural settings."
With more than half of secondary schools now academies or free schools: independent of local authorities and accountable to the Secretary of State, the role of councils in organising school admissions has become more and more unclear. Respondents to the survey warned that gaps have been created in accountability, admissions monitoring, school support services and school place planning.
The LGiU found consensus that a 'middle tier' was required to provide strategic oversight of all schools, including academies and free schools, and that local government was best placed to perform this role. It is increasingly clear that school place planning needs to be returned to safe hands. It is vital that we all campaign to persuade Michael Gove to act now and prevent this crisis.