Families waiting to hear if their child has got into their first choice of secondary school this week are bracing themselves for disappointment amid warnings about a crisis in school places and growing anger at “inadequate” planning by government.
Tuesday is national offer day in England when half a million children in their final year of primary find out which secondary school they will go to in September, but parents are being warned many will not get their preferred choice as demand for places goes up.
Councils, which no longer have the powers to open new schools where required, say they will struggle to provide sufficient places as the population bulge which has been affecting primary schools in recent years begins to move up into secondary.
Last year, 84,000 families failed to get their first choice of secondary school – 7,000 up on the previous year – and Labour says the figure could rise again this year.
Fresh analysis by the party reveals the strain on the system, with one in six secondary schools already at or over capacity and forecasts of more than 300,000 additional secondary school pupils by 2020. Last year, 84,000 families failed to get their first choice of secondary school – 7,000 up on the previous year – and Labour says the figure could rise again this year.
Labour warns that the number of so-called “titan” secondaries – with pupil numbers in excess of 1,600 – could increase by more than a third by 2020, and many could get even bigger. There are already 27 secondary schools in England with more than 2,000 pupils and that trend looks set to continue.
The government is hoping its free schools programme will fill the gaps where there are shortages, but critics say they do not always open in the areas of greatest need and there may be a struggle to find sufficient sponsors to open new schools quickly enough.
Parts of London and other major cities, particularly Birmingham, will be the most severely affected again this year. In Birmingham, more than 30% of children failed to get into their top choice last year. Nationally, 84.2% got their first choice.
Councillor Brigid Jones, cabinet member for Birmingham children’s services, said the current system was a mess. “As a local authority we need to ensure there are school places where they are needed across the city, but we lack the powers to do so,” she said.
“We spend a lot of time working out what we need, but convincing some academies and free schools to open in the right places at the right times can be a nightmare. If you don’t have enough places, children suffer; if you have too many, then the funding is spread too thinly and their education still suffers.
“It’s such a delicate balance. When public money is so scarce, seeing it getting wasted on places where they aren’t needed, when children are forced to sit in crowded crumbling buildings elsewhere, makes me really angry.”
The shadow education secretary, Lucy Powell, called on the government to reinstate local planning for school places and remove the bureaucracy councils currently face when trying to open or expand schools. “The Tories’ free-market approach to providing new school places just isn’t working and is creating a crisis in school places,” she said.
“With such big rises in demand and one in six secondary schools already at or over capacity, the provision of new places needs proper planning and co-ordination. Yet this government’s fixation with free schools, which can be opened where there is no shortage of school places, has made it harder and harder to ensure there are enough good school places in every local area.”
The Local Government Association (LGA), which represents 270 councils across England, said if councils could not open new schools, then academies – which are outside local authority control – should be compelled to expand to make sure every child has a place.
Roy Perry, who chairs the LGA’s children and young people board, said: “Councils have a statutory duty to ensure every child has a school place available to them but find themselves in the difficult position of not being able to ensure schools, including academies, expand. Finding suitable sponsors with the capacity to take on the running of a successful new school is also proving a challenge.”
The government claims an average of more than 3,000 secondary school places a month have been created since last September. The schools minister, Nick Gibb, said: “We want every parent to be able to send their children to a good local school. Despite rising pupil numbers the vast majority of parents are able to do so.
“The government is investing billions of pounds creating new schools and new school places and through our free schools programme we want to open 500 more new schools during the five years of this parliament.
“Free schools are helping to drive up academic standards throughout the country as they are the type of school more likely to be rated outstanding by Ofsted than other state schools.”
The Department for Education (DfE) accused the LGA of scaremongering and said 95% of parents received an offer at one of their top three preferred schools last year despite rising pupil numbers.
“Councils are responsible for ensuring there are sufficient school places in their area, and we expect them to plan effectively and make good investment decisions,” a DfE spokesperson said. “This requires certainty, which is why funding is allocated three and a half years in advance of places being needed – giving councils time to plan while still allowing the flexibility needed to make adjustments should local circumstances change.”
Families, meanwhile, are nervous after months of waiting. Parents on Mumsnet sought reassurance from one another as national offer day approaches.
One wrote: “I am pretty sure that we will get our first choice as it is less than a mile away (we moved here a few years ago to be sure). But it was a big birth year (not sure if that was nationally or just in our area but bulge classes were added on to all the primary schools when DD [darling daughter] started in 2009). So catchments will be smaller this year.”
Another responded: “That is my worry too. We are the second year that there were increases at primary across the board. So I am fairly sure we will get one of our top four but not absolutely sure. It doesn’t help that our two closest schools are both highly sought after and also admit via lottery so being close to them doesn’t help us AT ALL. Argh.”
Last year, London had the lowest number of applicants receiving an offer at their first choice of school. With a 3.3% increase in applications, which were up from 80,746 in 2014 to 83,380 in 2015, just 68.9% got their top selection. In Hammersmith and Fulham, 12% of applicants did not get into any of their six preferences.
Russell Hobby, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, condemned the government’s approach as laissez-faire and inadequate. “This is not rocket science,” he said. “It is easy to predict the need for secondary places, and it just needs coordination across all the different school types to meet the demand.”
Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: “It is quite clear that local authorities need to be given the ability and adequate funding to open new schools.” She said failure to do this would result in “yet more chaos”, children being taught in portable buildings, larger class sizes and many having to take places in schools away from their neighbourhood.
Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: “The free school experiment has failed in its most important purpose: ensuring every child has a local school place. The government must restore local authorities powers. They know their local area and should be able to respond to local need.”
Leora Cruddas, director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, warned however that the school places issue was not just about quantity, but also quality. “This means having sufficient resources. Unfortunately, schools are facing a double-whammy of real-terms funding cuts and a teacher recruitment crisis,” she said.