Fairness starts with a good education for all; we all know this, as if we learnt it by rote. Why, then, are we in a situation where schools are setting up classrooms on playgrounds, in school halls and even empty offices?
It’s not because we aren’t building new schools. In April 2012 an extra £500m was allocated to deal with pupil places shortages. The government also gave funding to the New Schools Network in January. The charity will help individuals or groups set up free schools. Despite this, in the next two years the problem is due to get much worse.
This is because when new schools open up, they don’t necessarily open up in areas of need. Take my constituency, which has struggled with a shortage in school places for a number of years. Unless a parent, teacher, community group or someone else decides to take on the mammoth task of setting up a school nothing will happen.
Since the Academies Act 2010 councils are no longer allowed to set up new schools. Unsurprisingly, the crisis has got a lot worse since then. Councils used to use their data to work out how many places were needed in their area, and apply for funding based on this. Interestingly, the £500m grant in 2012 went to local authorities – a lot of them will have been forced to use that money to open up temporary classrooms, many on playgrounds.
For the children in areas with a shortage in pupil places the reality is dire. Sub-standard buildings can have an effect on health; from damp, to cold, to having to cross long distances to go to the toilet. They can effect a child’s education; there might be less light, less room, poorer quality equipment. There’s less room to play, and there’s certainly less stability in learning. Outside the school, parents are already having to travel long distances to get their children to school. They might have to cut down on hours while they do this, use more expensive means of transport or even move house.
This is the picture we’re seeing now from Luton, to London – where the crisis is really hitting homes. Despite this, the Government’s own figures suggest nearly half of free schools opened in 2012 were in areas of surplus, with the trend continuing this year.
Things clearly aren’t working. Local authorities need to be given back the power to open new schools – whether or not free schools continue to be touted. Education policy often becomes a political football, especially when election time draws near. Politics should not get in the way of an obvious solution to a serious problem.