Yes – and no. Looking at the papers, you may think there’s a crisis in education and we’re running out of school places. It’s not uncommon to see estimates of 100 children or more in the news ‘missing out’ on a place each year – so is it true, and if it is, what’s going wrong?
Well, let’s not dwell on what’s in the newspapers. Let’s look at some figures from the Office of National Statistics.
Why is there a shortage of places?
Using those figures, we can see there should be almost 370,000 children starting school this autumn (2015). A baby boom from 2001 to 2012 increased the need for school places, and immigration has also added to the pressure – statistics for 2013 show more than a quarter of births (26.5%) were to women born outside the UK; similar figures for 2002 showed 17.7% were to women born overseas.
Since the education reforms of 2010, most new schools are ‘free schools’ or academies that are no longer subject to the control of local councils: they set their own admission policies, which means local councils don’t have as much say over who goes to which school.
What’s being done to increase the number of places?
The Local Government Association (LGA) claims many schools have had to give up vital space like libraries and playgrounds to squeeze in more classrooms. Class sizes are growing, and schools are being stretched: the Government is providing £7.35 billion of funding to create more school places, but the LGA estimates that £12 billion is needed – and local councils are struggling to make up the shortfall.
That, in the media, may sound like ‘not enough places for our children’, but it’s not the case everywhere. Some urban and suburban schools are over-capacity, but some rural schools have fewer pupils. Also, some schools hold places for children who will be educated elsewhere, at their parents’ discretion. In fact, some parents are turning to independent schools and homeschooling by choice – again, freeing up places in the classrooms.
What does the future hold?
Birth rates fell by 4.3% from 2012 to 2013, and if this trend continues then it should go some way to ‘leveling the playing field’, and easing the shortage of places. But with the government’s funding pledge in place, a shortage of classroom seats should be less of a problem in the coming years – so you probably don’t need to worry for a while.